How a Top Clinton Aide Helped Adam Silver Navigate the Sterling Saga

When the NBA is bigger than basketball, leaders of all stripes can take stock.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver holds a press conference to discuss Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling at the Hilton Hotel on April 29, 2014 in New York City.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
April 29, 2014, 7:19 p.m.

Stand­ing on the side­lines of his son’s soc­cer game Sat­urday morn­ing, Doug Sosnik glanced at his Black­berry and no­ticed an email from NBA com­mis­sion­er Adam Sil­ver. It was the start of something big­ger than bas­ket­ball ““ about bigotry, big busi­ness, and the chal­lenges of mod­ern lead­er­ship.

Sil­ver’s email in­cluded a link to a TMZ story ac­cus­ing Clip­pers own­er Don­ald Ster­ling of ra­cist state­ments. He asked the con­sult­ant to listen to the re­cord­ing. Please, Sil­ver wrote, give me any sug­ges­tions.

Why would Sil­ver email Sosnik, a former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or in the Clin­ton White House and ad­viser to Demo­crat­ic groups? Simple an­swer: The NBA is one of sev­er­al private sec­tor cli­ents who pay Sosnik hand­somely for his crisis-man­age­ment ex­per­i­ence in polit­ics.

Sosnik replied: Any­thing you need.

When Sil­ver an­nounced Ster­ling’s life­time league ban and a $2.5 mil­lion fine three days later, he ad­dressed a press corps as large as most pres­id­ents face ““ and his pre­par­a­tion was equally pres­id­en­tial. “It was in­tense,” said Sosnik, who helped Pres­id­ent Clin­ton sur­vive the Mon­ica Lew­in­sky im­peach­ment scan­dal. He has ad­vised the NBA for about 10 years.

Sil­ver’s hand­ling of the ex­plos­ive situ­ation is a text­book ex­ample of crisis man­age­ment: Gath­er the facts, de­term­ine a strong re­sponse, build con­sensus among nat­ur­al al­lies and po­ten­tial rivals, and an­nounce the de­cision in firm and clear lan­guage.  “It was,” Sosnik said, “real lead­er­ship.”

There’s that word ““ lead­er­ship. Mis­un­der­stood and mis­handled in Wash­ing­ton, lead­er­ship is a qual­ity that Sosnik has stud­ied up close. In ad­di­tion to time spent in the Oval Of­fice, Sosnik co-wrote “Ap­ple­bee’s Amer­ica,” a 2006 book that iden­ti­fied the shared at­trib­utes of suc­cess­ful polit­ic­al, busi­ness and re­li­gious lead­ers. His co-au­thors were Mat­thew Dowd, a former ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Bush, and me.

Nat­ur­ally, I called Sosnik shortly after he left the Sil­ver news con­fer­ence. We dis­cussed what polit­ic­al lead­ers could learn from Sil­ver’s per­form­ance.

LES­SON #1: Don’t parse your words.

“Politi­cians, in the last 10 to 20 years, tend to deny al­leg­a­tions and parse their words and ul­ti­mately have to back­track and clean up a second mess,” Sosnik said. “The first mess is what got you in trouble. The second mess is what pre­vents you from get­ting out of trouble. Politi­cians are in­creas­ingly learn­ing that when you get caught, own up to it and move on.”

Sil­ver’s open­ing state­ment in­cluded un­qual­i­fied con­tri­tion and ac­count­ab­il­ity (“I apo­lo­gize”), along with a clear ex­plan­a­tion of wrong­do­ing and re­sponse.

I am ban­ning Mr. Ster­ling for life from any as­so­ci­ation with the Clip­pers or­gan­iz­a­tion or the NBA. Mr. Ster­ling may not at­tend any NBA games or prac­tices. He may not be present at any Clip­pers fa­cil­ity, and he may not par­ti­cip­ate in any busi­ness or play­er per­son­nel de­cisions in­volving the team.

He will also be barred from at­tend­ing NBA Board of Gov­ernors meet­ings or par­ti­cip­at­ing in any oth­er league activ­ity.

I am also fin­ing Mr. Ster­ling $2.5 mil­lion, the max­im­um amount al­lowed un­der the NBA con­sti­tu­tion. 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.

LES­SON #2: Don’t waste your words.

Amer­ic­ans crave au­then­ti­city and ac­tion from their lead­ers. They’ve wit­nessed the fail­ure of Amer­ic­an in­sti­tu­tions to ad­apt to change, to shoot straight and to listen to their cus­tom­ers.

Polit­ic­al lead­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, tend to preach rather than pro­duce.

“People have been talked at to death,” Sosnik said. “That’s par­tic­u­larly true of young Amer­ic­ans; they’re really look­ing for ac­tion. They see ac­tion as the true meas­ure of a lead­er, not words.”

Read the tran­script of the first five ques­tions asked of Sil­ver. He replied in just 83 words, an av­er­age of about 16 words per an­swer.

Q. Do you or any of your emis­sar­ies have any clue as to wheth­er Mr. Ster­ling will ac­qui­esce to your wishes to sell the team, or do you ex­pect a fight?

ADAM SIL­VER: I have no idea.

Q. From polling the own­ers that you’ve spoken to, what sup­port do you think you have to force Mr. Ster­ling to sell the team?

ADAM SIL­VER: I didn’t poll the own­ers. I spoke to sev­er­al own­ers, and I have their full sup­port.

Q. What kind of au­thor­ity do they have to force a sale?

ADAM SIL­VER: The own­ers have the au­thor­ity sub­ject to three quar­ters vote of the own­er­ship group, of the part­ners, to re­move him as an own­er.

Q. The word you used spe­cific­ally was out­rage. You said that you were per­son­ally out­raged, yet many people be­lieve that they are out­raged that for years people have known that this man is a ra­cist slum­lord and the NBA hasn’t done any­thing un­til today. Can you please an­swer why.

ADAM SIL­VER: I can’t speak to past ac­tions oth­er than to say that when spe­cif­ic evid­ence was brought to the NBA, we ac­ted.

Q. Should someone lose their team for re­marks shared in private as this is a slip­pery slope?

ADAM SIL­VER: Wheth­er or not these re­marks were ini­tially shared in private, they are now pub­lic, and they rep­res­ent his views.

Such con­cision sig­nals strength, cer­ti­tude and hon­esty ““ par­tic­u­larly at a time when long-win­ded lead­ers seem de­term­ined to hide their true in­tent be­hind a flood of empty words and prom­ises.

Six­teen words per an­swer. By con­trast, no­tice how much longer most politi­cians take to reply to ques­tions from re­port­ers and voters. Pres­id­ent Obama, for all of his rhet­or­ic­al skills and ex­per­i­ence with news con­fer­ences, can take 500 words to clear his throat.

LES­SON #3: Share cred­it.

Sil­ver thanked his al­lies, in­clud­ing mem­bers of a uni­on that could have been an obstacle to his ef­fort.

This has been a pain­ful mo­ment for all mem­bers of the NBA fam­ily. I ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port and un­der­stand­ing of our play­ers dur­ing this pro­cess, and I am par­tic­u­larly grate­ful for the lead­er­ship shown by Coach Doc Rivers, Uni­on Pres­id­ent Chris Paul and May­or Kev­in John­son of Sac­ra­mento, who has been act­ing as the play­ers’ rep­res­ent­at­ive in this mat­ter.

We stand to­geth­er in con­demning Mr. Ster­ling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.

LES­SON #4: Keep your audi­ence fo­cused on a mis­sion, prefer­ably one that calls them to a cause big­ger than one’s self.

When asked to speak dir­ectly to fans of Ster­ling’s team, the Los Angeles Clip­pers, Sil­ver aimed high. The com­mis­sion­er spoke proudly of a league that has struggled in the past with drug ab­use and race, and that has on oc­ca­sion been big­ger than the game ““ such as when Ma­gic John­son an­nounced in 1991 that he had con­trac­ted HIV, a sem­in­al mo­ment in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (On that re­cord­ing ob­tained by TMZ, Ster­ling told his mis­tress he didn’t want her to bring John­son or any oth­er black play­ers to his games.)

My mes­sage to the Clip­pers fans is this league is far big­ger than any one own­er, any one coach, any one play­er,” Sil­ver said. “This in­sti­tu­tion has been around for a long time, and it will stand for a long time, and I have com­plete con­fid­ence in Doc Rivers, in the bas­ket­ball man­age­ment of that club, and the play­ers de­serve their sup­port. They’ve just been through an in­cred­ibly dif­fi­cult in­cid­ent in their lives.”

Lead­ing any en­ter­prise, any in­sti­tu­tion, through a crisis or great change is a dif­fi­cult job ““ and Sil­ver’s has just be­gun. The new com­mis­sion­er couldn’t ex­plain why the NBA ig­nored evid­ence of Ster­ling’s ra­cism for years (“Now you get re­li­gion?” colum­nist Mitch Al­bom writes). But for a few minutes on the third day of an NBA scan­dal, a sports fig­ure led by ex­ample.