A Sterling opportunity to tackle racism
ADAM Silver did what he had to do on Tuesday.
With advertisers deserting the Los Angeles Clippers by the hour, rumblings of a leaguewide player boycott and even fanciful talk that some fans might stay away from games, anything less than a lifetime suspension for Donald Sterling would have left Silver, the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) commissioner, with a moral train wreck on his hands.
He had little choice, given the racist remarks made by Sterling, the Clippers' owner.
But where does the NBA go now? With the public flogging over, some will declare the issue dead and the bad guy in the black hat vanquished.
If that is the result, we will all miss a golden opportunity for a deeper exploration of racism.
Sports like professional basketball and football offer a particularly poignant insight into the power dynamics of racism.
In these sports, the players are predominantly young and black, and are being paid by an overwhelmingly white cadre of wealthy owners. Some of the owners, like Sterling, seem to take their role quite literally.
Remember the boardroom reaction to LeBron James' leaving Cleveland to join Miami Heat? It was as if James were a runaway.
On one level, the Sterling story is about athletes demanding respect from a team owner who does not necessarily want black people at his games or in his "culture".
But more than that, it is a continuing narrative about structural racism in professional sports and beyond.
The problem is less about words used in a private conversation and more about institutionalised bigotry expressed in action.
I think about this when I walk into press boxes across the country, with waves of news media members and only a handful of black faces, if that.
Here is a sobering exercise for players in the NBA, the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
Take a tour of the front office, and note how many black people the organisation employs. How many are in positions of authority?
Take a tour of an agent's offices and of the law firms with which they are affiliated.
In the light of Sterling's expression of paternalism and disdain, this might be an eye-opening experience.
Let's not become so consumed by the pursuit of an octogenarian billionaire's bigotry that we lose sight of the culture that created and sustained him.
The NBA may be more enlightened than most professional leagues when it comes to diversity. Still, the sport comes up short.
A former NBA general manager lamented what he saw as a declining number of black executives, even as the percentage of black players is climbing.
During the National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four, black college coaches bemoaned their declining numbers.
I have had similar conversations with partners in law firms and financial firms.
Sterling was crude and vulgar. Others make a similar point simply by cultivating an environment that excludes African-Americans.
So where do we go from here? The players suddenly have an opportunity to energise their union.
They also have an opportunity to set a tone for respectful relationships with one another, beginning with dropping racial slurs from conversations with and about one another.
Players cannot rail at Sterling for disrespecting black people, and then debase one another with a slur on the grounds that it is being used as a term of endearment. You can't have it both ways.
Tuesday was a good day for the NBA; for Silver, the commissioner; for Clippers coach Doc Rivers; and for the Clippers' players, who now do not have to make a tough decision about whether to suit up.
Sponsors can return and fans can attend Clippers games with a clear conscience.
Except that the issue may not be going away any time soon.
Silver did the right thing on Tuesday. But racism is not dead. Not by a long shot.
This fight is just beginning. Ultimately, for the sake of a continuing conversation about racism, that may prove to be a good thing.