It's difficult to overstate how viscerally thrilling -- how just -- it felt when NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the planet on Tuesday that Clippers owner Donald Sterling was "banned for life." The sports world went into the press conference with its fists clenched in rage -- and in about 30 seconds, Silver transformed that rage into something resembling victory. More than anything else, NBA players were elated; Silver sounded, in many ways, like former MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti when he banned Pete Rose from the sport back in 1989. There was righteous fury in Silver's voice: He was definitive, and final. Like Giamatti, he left no doubt. This was the law.
It's funny, though, as Rose can tell you, what can happen with law when it's being meted out to someone who decides, no matter how forceful you might be, that the law doesn't apply to him. Silver made everyone feel better on Tuesday. But that doesn't mean that this situation is actually any better than it was yesterday.
In many ways, Silver's press conference was a miracle. It felt impossible that anyone would walk away feeling satisfied, no matter what the commissioner said or did. Would he need to take out a picture of Donald Sterling's face and start punching it? Could a promise of a public caning have sufficed? Maybe a vow to shoot Sterling into the sun? Before Silver's announcement, ESPN's Bill Simmons tweeted that Silver was going to be "dropping the nukes on Donald Sterling today." But it felt like Silver needed to drop an actual nuclear bomb on Sterling's head in order to sate the furious maw. This felt exceptionally true when early reports implied that Sterling would be "suspended indefinitely," which sounded a lot like "when/if we can figure out how to get rid of him, we will." That's probably still where Silver stands on all this: He thinks he can get rid of Sterling, but he doesn't officially know that yet -- not for sure.
The power of Silver on Tuesday, though, was that he was forceful despite all the uncertainty. He was the opposite of mealy-mouthed and lawyerly; there might be a lot more complexity in this, legally, than Silver let on, but he didn't act that way. He left himself no wiggle room … but he didn't leave Sterling much either.
Silver made a moral case, putting Sterling against the history of the league in a way that felt substantial rather than a public relations plea. He made it clear that Sterling not only couldn't remain as an owner, he wasn't even welcome on any sort of NBA property. (It was almost a surprise that Silver didn't ban him from even buying a ticket.) There was no standing on smarmy propriety, no raising of (legitimate, but misplaced in this context) privacy notions about Sterling's personal conversation being recorded and released without his knowledge or permission: "Whether or not these remarks were shared in private, they are now public, and they represent his views." Silver didn't delay either: "The process [to oust Sterling] will begin immediately."
The fine was the most Silver could mete out -- $2.5 million, a number that looks big only to people who don't have net worths of $1.9 billion; as Ian Gordon of Mother Jones noted, that's roughly a $50 fine for the average American -- and he had the glare of someone who would have fined Sterling $2.5 billion if he could, along with a couple of body parts.
The key was channeling the anger of the moment. We're always more angry about something when it's fresh in our minds; Sterling wouldn't become a better person in six months, but we'd be less furious at him. (There will be so many more things to be outraged about over the next six months.) If the goal is to get Sterling out of his ownership position eventually, Silver could have employed some more long-term thinking and kicked the can down the road with an eye toward future victory. But Silver decided, in the wake of such public fury and deep-seated suspicion from his labor force, to grab Sterling by the throat now and deal with the ramifications later. Nothing was going to feel just unless the tumor was excised at this moment.
The problem for Silver will come if Sterling doesn't go quietly (and there are already indications that he won't, having told Jim Gray before the press conference that "the Clippers are not for sale"). Sterling did, after all, make his money through litigation, and while public opinion is with Silver, it's still up in the air whether the courts would be on the commissioner's side as well. (There's a reason why Bud Selig couldn't kick out Dodgers owner Frank McCourt as easily as Silver is trying to kick out Sterling. And don't think getting Reds owner Marge Schott out was as easy as it seems now either. Schott was accused by a former employee of saying "I'd rather have a trained monkey working for me than a n----er" in 1992. She didn't sell the team until 1999.) Silver can be as direct and certain as he wants in a press conference, particularly when so much is riding on it. But it's a lot more complicated and difficult to make courts do and think what you want than it is to make reporters do it. If Sterling fights this, he can make a huge mess of it. In other words, if you think this is over, you are wrong.
This also leads into the larger problem with Sterling: The rage we feel at him for who he is and what he believes -- and the power he wields, still -- can't possibly be eradicated by sanctions, or fines, or suspensions. We are not angry, really, that Donald Sterling currently has power; we're angry that he ever had it at all. We're angry that it took an illegal recording leaked as nasty warfare in a gross civil suit for the people who have been tacitly supporting his toadishness for decades to be at last kicked into action. But mostly we're angry because you can't really punish Sterling in any way that feels like justice. You can't throw him in jail, you can't kick him in the nuts, you can't fire him into space. You can just scream at the television for a while, and when you're done, Donald Sterling drives home in a Porsche.
Never mind that the people now doling out "severe" punishments for Sterling (Silver, the other NBA owners) are the ones -- along with, you know, the rest of us -- personally responsible for a large percentage of his wealth. Silver even admitted that the NBA hadn't done anything to sanction Sterling after any of his other awful incidents in the past and that banning him for life was just for this particular incident. The reason why this felt like a strong move against Sterling is because there had never been any moves against him in the past; he had earned power from the same people now censuring him. This is why Sterling has always won, and will win no matter how this turns out. And why he's likely to fight it. You can call Sterling whatever you want to call him: People have been doing just that for decades. He will be just fine. He knows it. We all know it.
Silver knows it too, so he did all he could: Come down as hard as fathomable, even if he can't possibly be certain that he possesses the ability to follow through on all of it. It made you respect him. It made you believe that he has it within him to be a terrific commissioner. (Though he shouldn't get used to all this good press: No commissioner is ever popular for long.) It made you feel better coming out of Silver's talk than you could have reasonably expected to feel beforehand. Silver won the press conference, and that's certainly something. But there is still little to feel good about here. This feels like justice. But it isn't. There has been so much injustice done, and so much more left to come.