Howard Beck explains differences in Donald Sterling, Robert Sarver cases

Howard Beck explains differences in Donald Sterling, Robert Sarver cases

Howard Beck is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who was front and center during NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s press conference on Wednesday. His direct question to Silver about the difference in behavioral standards and accountability for Robert Sarver vs. any other employee in the NBA went viral, as many were shocked by the Commissioner’s answer. 

On Thursday morning, Beck joined my show with Dave Zirin ("The Collision, Where Sports And Politics Collide”) to discuss how the Sarver situation differs from the Donald Sterling investigation.

Dave Zirin: What was the mood at that presser? Did you feel like you were alone in having this concern, this question of the hypocrisy at play? 

Howard Beck: "Yeah, I mean, just to set the scene a little bit... This is at a Midtown hotel that the NBA uses often, and so this is a very ornate ballroom that is always set up for Adam Silver's press conferences following a Board of Governors' meeting. It feels pretty formal in those rooms. It's interesting to think about Donald Sterling, which we'll get to, I'm sure, but eight years ago that had to be moved to a massive hotel ballroom at a different hotel because of obviously the international interest. I mean, CNN was there and I think Inside Edition or one of those [shows] and all the TV entertainment shows, like TMZ, everybody. There were hundreds of people in the room for the Sterling thing because of the nature of that and because of how public it was in the wake of the tape. This was a much more scaled down, kind of sedate, very formal news conference.

"It was a smaller group, maybe a dozen of us, and we're there to ask Adam, I think, just questions about the process, how they reached it. Clearly by my question and some others', we're also bringing to the table, 'These are the concerns, if not our own necessarily, but the things we know are out there. This is how the public is reacting.' People would like to know why this is different to Donald Sterling. To the point of my question to him, why a team owner can do things and still hold his position that the average employee would be fired for within seconds. It's not an emotional back and forth. It's a fairly standard press conference where you're just looking to see where Adam Silver's rationale is... trying to get the best explanation for the public and to inform whatever pieces we may be writing about it. There's not a tone in there. It's just a back-and-forth standard press conference in the way I felt it."

Etan Thomas: I want to ask you specifically about his explanation of how it's so different than the situation with Donald Sterling.

Howard Beck: "If you want to drill down, and listen, we should remember this throughout our discussion today and anybody's discussion of any of this: Adam Silver's a lawyer by trade. He's been the Commissioner for eight or so years now. He's worked in the NBA for a couple decades, 20 maybe closer to 30 years. He's a lawyer by training, and the people who wrote this report on Robert Sarver are lawyers. It was a law firm that was hired to do it.

"Keep that in mind when we talk about the differences between Sarver and Sterling, because I think the facts that are on the table and viewing it through the prism of, if you're a lawyer processing this and you're thinking about what you can prove versus what is clear, what you can accomplish versus what you would like to accomplish, which may be different things... Look at it through the lens of a lawyer. I think sometimes that's helpful to understand how the league got to where it did.

"Donald Sterling, when it happened, there was a tape. There's that. Smoking gun right out the gate. No smoking gun when Baxter Holmes' story for ESPN first comes out last November. There was this wait and see. We got to have an investigation. We got to hire this law firm. They're going to interview hundreds of people. The law firm has finished its work. We now have that in hand. There's still no smoking gun that is comparable to Donald Sterling being taped by his mistress surreptitiously saying a bunch of horrendously offensive things, racist things that the whole world then got to listen to together repeatedly. That's the first piece. The second piece is that when the Sterling..."

Etan Thomas: Wait, wait, wait. Before we go to the second piece, let me just follow that up. Was it more about the court of public opinion or is it more of the legal court? Because if they interviewed all the people, they never said — and you correct me if I'm wrong — that the interviewees didn't coincide with the allegations.

Howard Beck: "Right."

Etan Thomas: They didn't have any of that, so there was no dispute on if he actually said what he was accused of saying, correct?

Howard Beck: "Yeah, for the most part. When Sarver responded to the report and to the suspension the other day, his quotes for his statement that he put out basically were like, 'I accept this and I'm sorry, but I don't agree with all of the chapter in verse.' There was a little bit of quibbling still even as he was accepting the results. We don't know which of those things there were. But yes, you're right, largely everything that had been alleged has now been corroborated through hundreds and hundreds of interviews by the law firm. Yes, but I'm saying... You asked the right question, of course, which is, 'Are we talking about court or court of public opinion?' I think it's both.

"To go back to Sterling for a minute... Here's the full scope of what happens with Sterling. There's a tape, so everybody can be appalled by hearing it themselves. It's not just reports of what somebody said or witnesses heard. We are all hearing it, so there's that shock value. Then on top of that, it happens during the playoffs. It happens involving Donald Sterling's team during the playoffs, and now they're going out to the court with their jerseys on inside-out as a form of quiet protest, but talking amongst themselves [about not playing] and surely the league, of course, was aware that. You've got a threat of a player strike. You've got sponsors fleeing. You've got the whole world saying, 'NBA, what are you going to do? How can you have this guy in your midst?'

"The pressure on the league at that moment was intense. Thus the hundreds and hundreds of media members in a ballroom for Adam Silver's press conference versus the dozen yesterday. The circumstances were so different that, I think, when you ask about the court of public opinion versus what you can prove in court or what the NBA can prove if they need to, to justify ousting an owner, it all kind of merges a little bit, because you need the groundswell of support. You need the public support. You need the players to be pushing in a certain direction. You need to get enough of the other NBA owners to support you as Commissioner, because Adam Silver cannot unilaterally oust anybody. He doesn't have that power.

"Because of the groundswell of outrage that happened with the Sterling case and how immediate it was and how intense it was, Adam Silver had all of the backing in the world, all the political capital, if you want to put it in those terms, to make the tough decision and say, 'He's done, he's out.' Plus, Donald Sterling had an estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who was a part owner of the team and could wrest control from him, which helped the NBA immensely in that whole process. When you ask why it's different... Listen, racism is racism, sexism is sexism, misogyny is misogyny, and hostile workplace environment and everything else that's happened under Sarver is what it is. But the political reality of trying to remove an owner, that's why it's different than Sterling. It's the things I just laid out. Those things make, I think, the path to trying to resolve this in the same fashion much more difficult."

Dave Zirin: I think the key element there, Howard, is the idea of a player revolt during the playoffs as opposed to an offseason where it's difficult to get comment. Chris Paul weighed in, LeBron James weighed in. But it's not the sort of thing where there are cameras in the faces of players after every game asking their opinion. Did you see that as a vital difference in terms of the court of public opinion?

Howard Beck: "This is one of the things that's interesting to me. If the NBA... Now listen, I'm not going to say the NBA had complete control over the timing of the investigation. That's always kind of a murky thing to try to assess, but all along we've been going, 'What's taking so long? What's taking so long?' I asked Adam that question multiple times at multiple press conferences over the last year. The NBA's best option in this case would've been to have this investigation, this report, come out like a month or a month-and-a-half ago in the dead of the offseason so that by the time Media Day comes along and training camps open, we've all kind of forgotten about it.

"This is now fresh in everybody's minds. It's mid-September. Everyone's reporting to training camp within the next two weeks, and Chris Paul and LeBron James, who came out very strongly on Twitter last night, are going to be asked about this on Media Day as will players on probably every team... Certainly all the veteran players who we usually go to for the big-picture type stuff or anybody who's been a very strong social-justice activist in the last few years... the Jaylen Browns of the world. We're going to be asking them all two weeks from now, 'What'd you think of the Sarver conclusion and the fact that he was not banned for life or do you think it was strong enough?' This is going to be front and center, I believe, when training camps open in a couple of weeks.

"There will be at least the possibility of more pressure on the league, more publicity around this story that maybe pushes this thing along. I can't predict that it's going to ever escalate to the level of the Sterling case. I want to caution on this note too: it's not fair for the players to have to bear the burden of adjudicating this or making the league do the right thing, but the players also have the most powerful collective voice on this by far. If Adam Silver can't act without the owners, if the owners don't want to act because they're the other owners and they just don't want to have to do this, because they're worried a bit somebody may be coming for them one day... who has more influence than anybody? It's the 450 players. It's LeBron and Chris Paul as the leaders of that Association.

"They cannot be ignored, and we cannot underestimate how big a deal it was. Dave, you said it, and I was alluding to it earlier... The threat of a player strike or any player action during the playoffs during the Donald Sterling saga was a huge leverage point or a pressure point for the league. I don't think we're going to get to that point in this case, but if the union keeps pushing on this and the players keep pushing on this, I don't think that the NBA can just say, 'Well, we've already resolved it. It's over. We've made our decision.' No. You can always tell a guy, 'You know what? We think it's time to sell.' If he doesn't want to sell, then you can use whatever leverage you've got. You can try to coerce, convince, whatever, and if he doesn't get there, then maybe you take the next step.

"Any given day, Robert Saver can just decide to step out. He doesn't have to own the team. He could also just reduce to minority-owner status, sell the majority share and not be the face of it anymore. Maybe that would be enough for a lot of us who think that this has fallen short to resolve it, but the idea of him still being in that seat courtside in about a year from now when the suspension's over seems like a bad look for the NBA."

Etan Thomas: Let me ask you this, because you gave a path that could possibly happen with training camps opening and players being more vocal about the situation and the possibility that could apply more pressure, but I want to talk to you about the difference in the Adam Silver that we saw yesterday compared to the one we saw eight years ago with Donald Sterling and the language that he used. Now, correct me if I'm wrong at any time in this. When Donald Sterling happened, he pretty much said, "I'm going to urge all of the governors to get on board with this." Something to that effect. Whereas here, it was kind of like, "Well, I work for them, and this is kind of what they want. I feel remorse and I'm sorry to all the victims and people, employees and everything like that, but this is kind of what we have to go with." Totally different, right?

So if Adam Silver had a different tone and approach, could that have changed things a little bit? Because after he did that with Donald Sterling, then immediately you saw Mark Cuban come out in support. The same Mark Cuban who before that was saying that we should be cautious because of the possibility of opening up Pandora's box, but when he set the tone, then the tone changed. You saw Ted Leonsis right after that come out in support. So my question is, in theory, could Adam Silver have set the tone a lot more than he did yesterday?"

Howard Beck: "Yeah, I think that's a really fair point. It's a weird relationship. Adam Silver's the Commissioner, he is the face of the league in a lot of ways politically... the figurehead. He is the lead executive for policy matters and all kinds of just general public relations and business deals and all kinds of stuff, but he doesn't actually lead the NBA. He works for the 30 teams, for the Board of Governors, and so they employ him, not the other way around. That said, yes, in that position, you have the ability, because you've got the bully pulpit and you've got the public's attention... you can lead on the messaging. You can say that, 'I, Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, believe that this is the kind of conduct that should not exist in our league, and I am urging our Board of Governors to go down this road.'

"The problem is, if you don't think that support is there, you just put yourself out on an island, and the Board of Governors may not be real appreciative of it. They might say, 'We're not there. Sorry.' Now you've suffered a massive public loss where some majority of the 30 owners has voted not to go down this path that you wanted to go, that you have now staked a public claim on. You have to be... Again, I hate putting these things in political terms, but there's an aspect of it. Just like you don't go make some major policy proclamation before you think you've got the votes, you got to count the votes first.

"My guess would be, and then I'm only speculating, but that if Adam Silver doesn't believe he's got the votes and won't have the support to banish somebody for life, which is again a very drastic step that's only been done once... then he is not going to go there. We can criticize it as, 'Well, that's a failure of leadership. If you believe this, you should push it this direction and tell the board to follow you.' But if the board doesn't follow you, now you're out on an island, and you've just lost a lot of capital publicly and with the board. I don't know what that does for your effectiveness in the role. Maybe it's the end of your role."

Etan Thomas: But he did do that with Donald Sterling, and we saw it be effective.

Howard Beck: "Again, I've said this, and Etan, you and I may have even discussed this at some point along the way here. I think that on the one hand, Adam rightly got all the praise that he got for making the bold decision that he did on Sterling swiftly and decisively — within days after that tape became public, I think it was. That said, it was really the only decision he could make because of all the things we talked about earlier — because the possibility of a player revolt, because of sponsors fleeing, because of the intense public attention and backlash that just did not exist in this case.

"We can sit here and say, 'Well, if we put everything down on paper, here's all of Donald Sterling's offenses against society. Here's Robert Sarver's offenses against society.' We put them both on paper, and we go, 'Yeah, I think those things equal about the same punishment in our view.' We could do that, but that's not the reality. The reality is, how is the world responding to this and what does that provide the league in terms of the momentum or the support or the cover to try to do something that's really difficult?

"Again, never underestimate the fact that Donald Sterling's wife, Shelly Sterling, as a part owner of the team, played a really influential role in being able to wrest control of the Clippers away from him. There's just not that same element in this case. You can stand on conviction and say that we are going to hold the line. This is the principle. We're applying the same principle broadly, even if these cases are somewhat different. But if you can't follow through, because it's really hard to remove an owner and because you're now introducing a lawsuit that is not going to be a suit against Adam Silver. It's going to be against the whole league. Now all the other owners are having to deal with the legal battle, the financial strain, all the stuff that goes with that. That's a lot that you have to consider before you go down that path."

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