Adam Silver's lifetime banishment of Donald Sterling from the NBA, now the most famous and appropriate expulsion of any figure ever associated with professional sports, represents a celebratory exercise in leadership and a monument to the need to confront discrimination, wherever it is found. Alas, it provides a grim reminder of the prevalence in America of racism and prejudice. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor declared last week, "race matters."
Sixty years after the Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down segregation in public schools in a powerful blow against institutionalized racism, it is important to recognize that racial prejudice lurks in the shadows. Only rarely does it explode in the public's consciousness as it did with the airing of Sterling's vile admonition to his female friend: "Don't associate with blacks in public."
Not since the legendary baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned eight members of the Chicago White Sox - the "Black Sox" - for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series, has a sports czar moved so decisively to protect a pro sport from conduct "prejudicial and detrimental" to a league. Commissioner Silver's aggressive punishment of Sterling, which is meant to include the forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, serves not only the interests of the NBA, but the broader interest in America of promoting justice and human rights.
Racial prejudice, like discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, is a plague on a nation that boasts the principles of democracy and equal protection. It mocks the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the principle of the Golden Rule, and it tears at the fabric of a system that promotes decision-making based on reason and rationality.
Discrimination, which is irrational in every way, shape and form, is a specter that haunts the United States. Silver's bold effort to attack the cancer of racism in the NBA ought to inspire similar acts of leadership in other quarters. It reminds us that sports figures have the capacity to introduce dynamic changes for the broader fight against prejudice and discrimination in our society.
Transcendent moments in sports, whether on the field or behind the podium, as seen in the courage of Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Bill Russell and now Adam Silver, can be heart-lifting and unifying. They can galvanize the citizenry to challenge discrimination, in all of its manifestations. Silver's excommunication of the Clippers' owner, delivered in a precise declaration - "I am banning Mr. Sterling for life" - quickened the pulse of Americans from coast to coast who had condemned Sterling's soul-drubbing racism and demanded his ouster from the league.
Silver's courageous decision is not the last act necessary to remove Sterling from every quarter of the league. Owners will be asked to require Sterling to sell the Clippers, an act that will demand courage on their part, for they might be setting the stage for a prolonged legal fight with Sterling, known for his litigiousness. If a costly, protracted legal battle is necessary to remove another vestige of racism from the NBA, then, indeed, we might say again that sports is a mirror of our society. How could it be otherwise? Other than the commitment of human capital, in the form of heart, hard work, energy and resources, have we made progress in fighting discrimination?
Citizens of every stripe and color, from Boston to Boise to Berkeley, should be prepared to denounce bigotry wherever they see it and in their own words and voices declare that there is no place for discrimination in America.
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.