The recent racist rant of Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, has drawn universal condemnation and outrage – from his own players right up to President Obama. Advertisers, including Mercedes Benz and Virgin America, quickly withdrew sponsorship. The ravings appear to be less of headache for Sterling, who the New York Times referred to as the “worst owner in professional sports,” than for the NBA and its rookie commissioner, Adam Silver.
A tape recording emerged last weekend of Sterling telling his mistress over the phone not to bring black people to his team’s games. Numerous media were quick to inventory Sterling’s history of racist pronouncements. PR then, for such an inveterate bigot, is not much of a concern.
Not so for Silver, a lawyer who has been with the NBA for over 20 years but became commissioner only in February. He called the recording “truly offensive and disturbing” and promised swift action, but then retreated to lawyerly restraint, citing the need for due process. Faced with a volatile situation with ramifications for all of sports (if not beyond), Silver was right to call time out.
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who needs to run the clock out a little before taking his shot.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Take time to breathe in a crisis. What is important is not necessarily urgent, and vice versa. The ball is in Silver’s court now, which means he controls the clock. Acting rashly could lead to a costly turnover. Amid uniform denunciation and calls to separate Sterling permanently from professional basketball, Silver is facing an unprecedented predicament and needs time both to build a case for action and let the dust settle. Sterling has sued the NBA before and most certainly will again in the face of any disciplinary action from the league. Silver, with owners, players and fans among his constituencies, needs time to set up the final play of the game.