A room in Los Angeles erupted when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced his decision this week to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life following Sterling’s leaked, racist comments.
What happened in that room, where Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was joined by current and former NBA players, was just one aspect of the incredibly fast-moving, multifaceted response to Sterling’s remarks, which had been released by TMZ just days before. And while Silver deserves the bulk of the credit for dealing a swift, severe punishment, what Johnson was able to do with the National Basketball Players Association shows just how powerful collective action can be.
In the abscence of an executive director, Johnson, a former NBA all-star with the Phoenix Suns, had been asked by the NBPA to advocate for the organization during the Sterling episode. And after the recording leaked, he was in near-constant contact with Silver. They spoke three times on Saturday, then met on Sunday and again on Monday. “I was representing what the players wanted to see have happen,” he told National Journal.
So, what exactly was that? “They wanted an immediate investigation, they wanted the players’ voices heard, they didn’t want to be passive participants, they wanted to have a seat at the table and be able to have a dialogue. And I was their representative to do that,” Johnson said. “And then they wanted the maximum allowable punishment under the NBA’s bylaws, and ultimately there must be a change in ownership.”
On Tuesday, before Silver made his announcement laying out just what the league would do, Johnson says he and the NBPA were “hopeful.” But the association wasn’t planning on anything immediately drastic if Silver’s decision didn’t go their way. “I never brought up the word ‘boycott’ in any discussion,” Johnson said, suggesting that the Golden State Warriors’ reported plan to boycott Tuesday night’s playoff game against the Clippers if Silver’s response was deemed inadequate wasn’t part of a larger NBPA effort.
Silver, Johnson said, “did not make the decision he made because of any threat. He made the decision he made because it was the right thing to do.”
And when Johnson and the players he was with — including repeat NBA MVPs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Nash — heard that decision on Tuesday, it was more than they had hoped for. “We’re sitting there just like waiting for what he would say, and … Commissioner Silver said, ‘There’s no place for this in our game. There should be zero tolerance. We are instituting, I am instituting a lifetime ban,’ and everybody in the room just started cheering.”
While Johnson says the commissioner came to this decision on his own accord, Johnson believes the players influenced the drive to push out Sterling. “I thought what was so awesome,” he said, “was that our players, around this league, immediately spoke out through social media, from the biggest stars to everyday players. They weren’t afraid, they came out strong, and they came out powerful.”
This example isn’t just a big deal for NBA players — it’s a big deal for worker rights. NBA players are obviously not the only people out there who have had to work for someone oppressive or racist. Johnson and the NBPA aren’t the only ones to realize that. “It’s an NBA thing, but everyone who goes to work should feel like they’re appreciated,” former player and current analyst Charles Barkley said on TNT’s Inside the NBA Tuesday night. “I hope that not just the NBA, but every person who gets humiliated at work, that they all stand together.”
For the NBA, it’s something to build on. “I’m proud of the players,” Johnson said. “They stood up, they spoke up, they took action. And I think this is a galvanizing moment for the Players Association to build on because this brought them together in a real way.”
The Sterling case could set a precedent not just for how the NBPA functions, but for how one of the country’s largest sports leagues respond to future prejudice — whether racism, homophobia, or sexism. “I think what Commissioner Silver was doing, is saying, there’s no place for bigotry, there’s no place for institutional racism,” Johnson said. “And we’re going to have to look at things going forward on a case-by-case basis, in my opinion.”
Then there’s the other under-the-radar story of the last few days: the mayor of Sacramento himself. Aside from his work with the NBPA and as mayor, Johnson now heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He is, in short, a guy with a whole lot going on. For his part, Johnson’s not too sure what comes next for him, after his current mayoral term expires in 2016. He’s “very much considering” running for a third term, he says.
But it’s hard to ignore Johnson’s growing national profile. And a politician can only stay in Sacramento, a city with a “weak mayor” system, for so long. Well, at least before he or she starts looking at the governor’s office.
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