May 2, 2014

Silver's Golden Play on Sterling

Silver's Golden Play on Sterling

National Basketball Commissioner Adam Silver may just be the latest inductee to the Jeffrey Weiner Business Hall of Fame. At a minimum, he is my candidate for the first annual How to Do It Right Award. Silver’s swift and decisive action banning Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the sport for life and slapping him with a $2.5 million fine – the maximum permitted by the NBA constitution – sets an example for crisis management if I’ve ever seen one. And Silver’s not done yet. His effort to force the sale of the team is another strategic move to preserve the dignity and decorum of professional basketball.

Silver wasted not a minute in using the full force of his office to respond to Sterling’s stark and repugnant racist remarks, which were first revealed on TMZ. And it’s a good thing, for more than one reason. The incident nearly stopped the NBA playoffs in their tracks, with players across the League threatening a boycott if aggressive, corrective action were not taken. The Warriors were set to walk out of Game 5 in the first-round playoff series in Los Angeles, but fortunately, that didn’t become necessary. Silver pushed Sterling out instead.

Not surprisingly, the Sterling incident unleashed a public fury. Team sponsors like Sprint, Red Bull, Virgin America, Kia Motors and State Farm – 14 in all – couldn’t distance themselves fast enough. They hightailed it out of there before Sterling knew what had hit him. Adidas has since become the first to return, following Sterling’s censorship by the NBA, and I’m guessing the others will eventually come back as well. But they’re hanging back for now, and rightfully so.

No brand can afford to associate with anything that maligns its customers or, worse, damages or corrupts the core values of the brand. National brands like the Clippers sponsors spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to build credibility and strong relationships with their customers. As we have seen, a few careless words or one stupid moment can destroy what may have taken years to build.

Which begs the question, what was Sterling thinking? His derogatory and offensive comments fly in the face of common sense. He insulted his own players, his season ticket holders, his fans and his brand partners. Not to mention the person who gave the tape to TMZ. It was a slam dunk for stupidity.

Commissioner Silver didn’t tolerate any of it. He acted fast, he acted decisively, he did what was right, and he acted in the best interests of the league, the fans and the businesses whose livelihoods depend on it. It’s a leadership play that will win the game every time.