Adam Silver was about to finish his third month as NBA commissioner when Donald Sterling’s racist tirade leaked to TMZ.
Silver acted swiftly. He listened to the taped calls, opened an investigation and fined Sterling before banning him for life from the NBA — all in a matter of days.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” said Silver announcing the sanctions in a 2014 press conference. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage.”
This was the first time that Silver, as commissioner, had been put on the spot and forced to make a consequential decision. It was a move that fans, athletes, and league officials widely applauded.
Again, the move was supported by the basketball community.
Over the years, NBA athletes have also taken stands against racism. In 2012 Miami Heat players wore hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, and one year later, teams dressed in “I can’t breathe” warm-up shirts, in observance of the final words uttered by Eric Garner, a black man, as he was choked to death by a white NYPD detective.
Before and after Silver’s first months on the job, the league has taken progressive stands on political issues, racial justice issues, and gender issues. Head coaches have openly and unapologetically bashed President Trump.
It’s often said on sports radio and Twitter that the NBA could be one of the most progressive athletic organizations in the country. But the league continues to operate in non-progressive ways and even support an undemocratic, authoritarian government.
The NBA’s marijuana policy, for instance, is “the harshest in North American professional sports,” according to an ESPN report published today.
In the NBA, a player who test positive for marijuana “must enter a marijuana program.” If he tests positive a second time he’ll be fined $25,000. Every violation thereafter is a five-game suspension.
Add that report to the league’s stance on national anthem protests, which is more strict than the NFL’s.
And don’t forget the NBA debacle in China a few months ago. After Houston Rockets owner tweeted support for Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” Morey wrote before deleting the tweet. The NBA, however, did not fight for Morey, and kowtowed to the Chinese government in the interest of preserving its business partnerships.
That’s not progressive.
“The NBA understood that diversity was a moral imperative,” Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the The Atlantic in 2016.
The league was the first among its peers to conceptualize diversity and inclusion as “business imperatives,” Lapchick said.
Lapchick, whose institute publishes Racial and Gendered report cards for most major sports leagues, deservedly gives high grades to the NBA for its hiring practices.
And to Lapchick’s point, the NBA has indeed capitalized on socially conscious consumerism. But they have done so while simultaneously cracking down on marijuana, a drug decriminalized or even legal in many states.
There is no reason why the NBA can’t loosen its restrictions on marijuana, end its shameful cooperation with the Chinese government, and update its anthem policy.
The NBA is not as progressive as it seems. Today’s report is just another example of the league’s mixed messaging.