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
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
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
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
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
"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."