I hope, and believe, that the late, great former Commissioner of Baseball smiles in a peaceful place where everyone is surrounded by green grass with a brilliant blue sky overhead. A doubleheader is scheduled and Walter Johnson is pitching to Lou Gehrig. But, the real reason the great Commissioner, whose tenure came and went much too fast, is smiling today is because he knows that what Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, did yesterday was all about preserving a public trust.
Bart Giamatti, a president of Yale and a Renaissance scholar, was both an unorthodox and brilliant choice to run major league baseball. He got the job just in time to ban Pete Rose for life for betting on games and lying about it. As the first President Bush, an Eli and a great baseball fan, said in 1989 on hearing the news of Giamatti’s shocking death at age 51, he ”made a real contribution to the game, standing for the highest possible ethical standards.”
That’s it – the highest possible ethical standards. That’s what Giamatti stood for and now Adam Silver, too.
Fay Vincent must be smiling today, as well. He had the guts and the high ethical standards to ban the insufferable George Steinbrenner back in 1990. Unfortunately, that ban was later rescinded, but it had its impact. George, the blustering billionaire bully, became a punchline on Seinfeld and we delighted in debating whether the Yankee owner depicted on the show – and in real life – was a bigger boob than his hapless employee George Costanza. “Were’s Costanza? I need my Calzone…”
How Did He Do It?
There are many lessons from Commissioner Silver’s action yesterday; action that banned L.A. Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling for life from involvement with his team or the NBA, fined the racist and misogynist billionaire the maximum allowed, and set the wheels in motion to force the sale of his team. There are also many questions left hanging, one being how does a guy like Donald Sterling survive so long and thrive so well economically when, it would appear, that everyone who knew him knew him to be a first class jerk?
The simple answer is that the highest reaches of a capitalist system don’t always equate with either merit or – that term again – ethical standards. At some level Sterling survived because he was rich and litigious, and apparently because he was able to purchase protection for his personal behavior from the NAACP, among others, by spreading around a few six figure charitable contributions. By most accounts Sterling’s Clipper’s have consistently been among the most inept professional sports franchises, run by a rich guy with no class and little regard for quality who now stands to walk away, if indeed he does walk away, with hundreds of millions made on an investment of just $12 million. The guy has been characterized as an L.A. “slum lord,” a fact long known to the NBA’s leadership and his other owners. Yet, that sordid past only caught up with him when his girlfriend recorded his racist and sexist inner most thoughts.
Ironically it took an eloquent, dignified, classy African-American coach, Doc Rivers, to help make Sterling’s clueless Clippers a playoff contender this year. Also ironic is the fact that the nerdy Alan Silver, scrambling to establish his credibility as commissioner – and just like Bart Giamatti before him – does the right thing, and having upheld the highest ethical standards, now enjoys and deserves vastly enhanced respect and power.
When I tried to play basketball a lot of years ago we had a term for that once-in-a-while moment when you’re all alone and about to kiss the ball gently off the glass for an easy and uncontested lay-up. Such a shot was “a bunny” and no one wanted to miss such an opportunity. The 29 other NBA owners, all business people in a customer service and entertainment industry, now have their own uncontested lay-up. They better not blow it. They may not want to acknowledge it, but the owners now clearly have a public trust to maintain and not merely a business to run. If they buck themselves up and uphold the highest ethical standard they will honor the old adage of doing well by doing good.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell might not be smiling today since he must know that once the Sterling hubbub dies down attention will inevitably shift toward his handling – or avoiding – of the demands that the owner of the Washington NFL franchise do something about the name of his team. Goodell’s and the NFL’s moment of truth cometh.
The Larger Institutional Issues
Todd Purdum, writing in Politico today, quotes Santiago Colas, who teaches a course on the “Cultures of Basketball” at the University of Michigan, as saying the sad Sterling episode seems like an important moment in the on-going national struggle to deal with race. “I hope it’s a moment that’s not lost,” Colas said. “The problem is that we get really excited about spectacular demonstrations of racism, and in the process of our excitement, we overlook the larger institutional issues that endure.”
As Neal Gabler wrote today, “Sterling is not only a pariah; he is irredeemable. His sentiments are so out of fashion that no one can defend him.” No one save the nation’s top blowhards-in-chief, the representative of the larger institutional issues that endure, Trump and Limbaugh.
Perhaps it was completely predictable that the champion of the Obama birth certificate “scandal” would take the edge of Sterling’s words by suggesting that the poor guy was set up by his girlfriend. “He got set up by a very, very bad girlfriend, let’s face it,” Donald Trump said and, of course, he said it on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” Trump did add he thought Sterling’s words were “despicable,” but I would suggest only slightly more despicable than having Trump comment on anything.
Rush Limbaugh went even farther into the weeds suggesting that Sterling was a victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy to force him to sell his team to a group led by Magic Johnson. You can’t make this stuff up. Trump and Limbaugh and Sterling do prove one point about America – you can be worth a lot of money, command a lot of attention and still be an idiot, while completely overlooking the issues that sadly endure.
No Problem With That
Back before Bart Giammati became baseball commissioner he was the President of the National League. A guy who had never really played the game, but had written books about Dante, was suddenly in charge of a big chunk of baseball. Naturally he ruffled feathers among some players and managers when he insisted on cracking down – ethical standards again – on enforcement of the rules, including the legendarily difficult to enforce rule about a pitcher’s balk.
In a game in 1988, Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Jim Gott balked three times in one inning and, as a result, gave away a key game to the New York Mets. The next day, Gott was quoted as saying about Giamatti: ”A guy who’s a fan governing the National League – I have problems with that.”
Not many remember Jim Gott today and his life-time 56-74 pitching record, but most every fan remembers the guy who upheld the ethical standards of the game he loved. He’s smiling today. God rest his soul. The old baseball commissioner has found a fellow traveler in the new NBA commissioner and, I for one, have absolutely no problem with that.