By Julia Schatz, Senior Account Executive
The NBA recently faced a highly-controversial, racially-driven crisis when L.A. Clippers team owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape late last week making racist comments. Players demanded Sterling’s exit from the league, fans expressed outrage, and sponsors canceled their contracts with the Clippers. The reaction by the NBA, specifically by NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, demonstrated an excellent lesson in crisis management.
Silver, who stepped in to the position only three months ago, made a bold move yesterday by announcing his decision to ban Sterling from the NBA and issue him the maximum fine of $2.5 million for his racist comments leaked to TMZ over the weekend. These funds will be donated to organizations dedicated to anti discrimination and tolerance efforts that will be jointly selected by the NBA and its Players Association. Then he announced he would urge the NBA Board of Governors to assert its powers to force Sterling to sell the franchise.
This landmark decision was not only unprecedented, but it is the harshest penalty ever issued by the league and one of the most severe punishments ever given to an owner in professional sports. Although the decision seemed like an obvious right to a clear wrong, the way Silver and the NBA handled the controversy and delivered news of the decision was key.
First, Silver acted quickly – an investigation was concluded and the penalties were announced only three days after the scandal broke. Second, rather than issuing a statement, Silver chose to announce his decision during a press conference yesterday. His delivery was strong and firm, demonstrating decisiveness and authority. Yet, his statement was also heartfelt and sincere, demonstrated integrity.
“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league,” Silver said during Tuesday’s press conference.
Silver’s press conference included several other highlights crucial to crisis management. His message was consistent with his actions and he was clear about the process of how he came to the decision. Silver showed accountability by both publicly and personally apologizing for what had happened. He also shared credit with his allies and supporters and thanked everyone who had been involved in the decision-making process. He used his statement to reinforce that, as Commissioner, he stands for players, coaches, owners and everyone involved in the league, making it clear he was representing a united front against injustice.
“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.”
Next, after announcing his decision, Silver took questions from the media, which can create vulnerability and can easily make a bad situation worse. However, Silver did an excellent job responding to questions. His answers didn’t try to over explain or justify his decision – he simply owned it. He was honest and transparent. While remaining consistent to his message, Silver gave answers that were both personal and professional, demonstrating that he truly understood the feelings and motivation of those hurt and offended by Sterling’s comments. All of these things reinforced Silver as a true leader who made a hard choice because it was simply the right choice.
Lastly, after the press conference Silver wrote a letter to fans that echoed his earlier messages.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and hurtful. I am extremely proud of this great league’s diverse, respectful and inclusive culture, and we will not allow one individual’s intolerant views to define us. Let me be clear: Mr. Sterling’s views have no place in the NBA,” Silver wrote.
In his letter to fans, Silver also encouraged the spotlight to be placed back on what is happening on the court rather than off. He urged fans to focus their attention on the playoffs rather than the recent controversy, which has overshadowed all other league news the last several days.
Silver turned a potentially disastrous situation into an opportunity to establish himself as a worthy commissioner and a respectable leader. He has already received a great deal of praise, support and gratitude for his decision. “The Sterling Decision” may define his legacy as NBA Commissioner while reinforcing the NBA’s reputation for being a progressive league. “The Sterling Decision” will not only be a landmark decision for sports but it will be praised as an example of great crisis management.