Adam Silver Flees the "Good NBA Commissioner" Trap
In not banning an owner, the commish lost the press conference while doing his job
On Wednesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference in New York City that was televised live. He started off by mentioning how he’d just met with the NBA’s owners, which are now officially referred to as “governors” these days, for optics reasons. That was the tipoff about what was going to come next, which was something the media wasn’t going to like very much: An explanation of how the league was fining and suspending embattled Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, rather than banning him for life.
The resulting exchange with media members was stilted, awkward and above all lawyerly. Silver expressed, “The conduct is indefensible but I feel we dealt with it in a fair manner,” and that tack wasn’t accepted.
It should have been accepted, however. Some have reached out to me, in expectation that I might join in on this media dogpile, considering that I’ve posted criticisms of the commissioner on this site. I just don’t feel that way, though. Moreover, I believe that many of my former colleagues aren’t being practical about this issue, in part due to the social media incentives. I’m sorry if they feel insulted by that suggestion, but that’s how I see it.
Because, in totality, Silver did his job on Wednesday. His job isn’t to placate the media with what it demands in the moment. He works for the league’s owners, and beyond that, for the sake of their league. The cynical media take is that Silver prioritized the former role over the latter. The media assumption is that prosecuting their preferred moral crusades is good for the sport. They believe this to the point of conflation. But, what’s ultimately good for the sport is keeping it running, absent friction. Wednesday was a reminder that this is Adam Silver’s main duty. He’s a sports commissioner, not some magical religious leader who preserves our souls by banishing Bad Men. The league is full of Bad Men, to varying degrees. Silver’s job is to get a good product out of them.
Paradoxically, it’s a negative indicator when a sports commissioner is only praised by media and a positive sign when he’s taking some hits. The media has more of an instinct for what sounds good in the moment versus what is good for an institution. That’s why the term “winning the press conference” insinuates long-term folly for the sake of short-term gain.
The case of Adam Silver is illustrative because he’s so obviously caught in a particular trap, one that might be of his own making but could hardly have been foreseen.