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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thoughts About the Silver Decision

When something happens in one sport -- especially when that something involves a social issue -- it eventually has an effect on other sports. Golf isn't immune, so Tuesday's NBA drama caught my attention.

Adam Silver and Donald Sterling

For those of you who didn't hear, Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers (a basketball team, for those of you unfamiliar with the NBA, and Sterling is pictured on the right in the above photo) has been in the center of a scandal because of some racist remarks he made last week. Sterling has, shall we say, a "poor record" where race relations are concerned... but this time the remarks were taped and made national news. To say that this has caused some outrage is an understatement -- you can read this SI article for more details -- but let's just say that this issue struck a deep nerve in this country and was on the verge of erupting into something really ugly among the NBA teams.

The man who had to deal with this is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (on the left in the photo), who has been in office less than three months since the retirement of legendary commissioner David Stern. This novice found himself in the midst of a problem that would have given Stern and his 30 years of experience pause. Something had to be done and there was a lot of speculation about what the new guy would do. Most of the speculation I heard before his press conference Tuesday was that he would give Sterling an indefinite suspension. You see, the Commish works for the owners and it's not good to alienate your bosses.

But Silver did something that no one dared believe he would have the guts to do. He claimed every bit of power that the NBA bylaws gave him and proceeded to ban Sterling FOR LIFE, not only from the Clippers but from taking any part in the NBA. He gave him a $2.5 million fine, the largest he was authorized to give. And he announced that he was calling on the other owners to force Sterling to sell the team to someone else... and that he would do everything in his power to make sure it happened quickly. And perhaps most surprisingly, when asked how much trouble he would have getting the 75% support of the owners that he needed, he simply said he believed he already had it.

Now there are those who say this should have been done long ago, given Sterling's record. They're probably right. But this was Adam Silver's first chance to do something about it, and I think the real magnitude of what he did may have been overlooked.

You see, the players in any sport rarely trust the Commissioner because he is employed by the owners to oversee the owners' interests. You can see this in the NFL, where the players' union and the commissioner have a somewhat antagonistic relationship. Silver had been in constant touch with the NBA players' union over the last few days and, when his news conference was finished, the players' reps announced in no uncertain terms how pleased they were. They said (and these are almost the exact words) that Silver wasn't the NBA's commissioner, he was the players' commissioner.

There's a lot of talk about "bonding" within groups. In an elite group like NBA team owners -- the Clippers are estimated to be worth around $600 million, so there aren't many folks in that group! -- that bonding tends to join them pretty strongly. But Silver had been talking to owners as well, and by the end of his news conference some of the owners were already tweeting their support for what Silver had done.

Think about that, folks. A brand new commissioner successfully getting the players and the owners -- two groups who are usually at opposite ends of any issue -- to agree and pull together. That is an astounding accomplishment! And bear in mind that Silver is trained as a lawyer, so he is well aware of the potential problems of the course of action he has chosen.

But perhaps most surprising was how the fans reacted to all this. It seemed to resonate with everybody, not just the folks who are the typical targets. As Charles Barkley said, almost everybody has been the victim of some sort of prejudice, no matter what color they are. Sex, age, social status... you can discriminate in a lot of ways. And fans all over the country rallied around the players -- not just the Clippers, but all the NBA players.

Nobody likes to be left out.

Golf hasn't had anything resembling a scandal like this. However, the fact remains that if golf really wants to "grow the game," it faces some perception problems that will eventually have to be dealt with. The changes at the grassroots level haven't reached the powers-that-be at the top, the "players" who control the public face of the game. Up where the power is, it's still very much a rich white male's game. While the Masters Committee, the USGA, the R&A, and the PGA are trying to deal with some of these, a lot of the money players seem to have other ideas.

When Mike Whan called out Golf Digest for putting Holly Sonders and Paulina Gretzky on the cover while consistently ignoring players like Inbee Park and Lydia Ko who are making history, did anybody really understand what he was saying? There's still a belief that women's golf isn't "real" golf and that their real value in the golf community is as eye candy to sell magazines.

My skin crawls every time I hear golf described as "our product." I have no doubt that other sports have financial advisors who think in those terms, but I can't remember ever hearing baseball or tennis referred to as "product" during a broadcast.

And don't get me started about the expensive teaching aids sold to teach players (for example) how to "hold their wrist cock during the downswing" when all players really need to learn is how to keep their trailing elbows bent until their hands are down around waist level. (Wow. That's really hard. Probably takes all of 60 seconds to teach that.)

If I want to learn to play basketball, I can get a ball for $15 and a hoop for $20. I can bolt the hoop on a cheap scrap of plywood, mount it on the garage, and we're ready to go. I can get a good football for less than $20; all we need is a yard or vacant lot. How many players learned to play baseball with a ball and a stick in a city cul-de-sac? But I need several hundred dollars' worth of equipment plus greens fees to play golf, not to mention that I have to meet a dress code before they'll even let me on the course. Yeah, that's gonna encourage more people to play.

Tell me, what's wrong with this picture?

The more blatant prejudices may be fading somewhat -- or perhaps my patronage of public courses keeps me from seeing them as much -- but the image of golf as a sport for the rich and male is still far too prevalent. And we don't have a commissioner who can simply deal with the problems for us. They aren't going away on their own. It's up to us.

The big question is... how are we going to deal with them? Or will we ignore them until it's too late?

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