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Adam Silver Is Finally Being Judged As a Commissioner, Not As Our Pal

The NBA leader has been closely scrutinized in the aftermath of the league’s Daryl Morey–incited conflict with China. The long honeymoon between Silver and the media is officially over.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This week, Adam Silver suffered the ultimate humiliation. He was outed as less of a progressive hero than Ted Cruz. For citizens of the free world, that’s bad news. For sportswriters, it’s almost a relief. We can start covering Silver like a sports commissioner, not like our pal.

The limp statement the NBA sent out Sunday about Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet brought an end to one of journalism’s longest honeymoons. Silver is no longer “basketball’s righteous chief,” as Lee Jenkins once dubbed him. Silver is a guy who is fatally compromised by the very condition of being a sports commissioner. Like every commissioner before him.

“If you look at his demeanor—and we now have six years—revenue has always been number one,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst told me.

“Now, perhaps that label will present itself. But it’s not because it’s a shift. It’s because he got unmasked a little bit.”

The relationship between reporters and league commissioners ought to be adversarial, or at least skeptical. Silver earned a lot of journalistic goodwill because he was less terrible than contemporaries Roger Goodell, Bud Selig, and Gary Bettman. He had a way of rising above their drabness and attaching noble ideas to a commissionership.

Silver has his own progressive highlight reel. He figured out how to pry the Clippers from Donald Sterling’s claws. He stood next to Jason Collins on a float in New York City’s Pride Parade. Silver came out in favor of legalized sports gambling four years before the Supreme Court opened the doors for states to adopt it. He thinks NBA players might need more rest.

In 2015, when Colin Kaepernick was still a gainfully employed quarterback, I went to Princeton to watch Silver talk at a symposium called “Political Expression and Activism in Today’s NBA.” Silver didn’t say anything terribly provocative. But it was still amazing to listen to a sports commissioner interact with, or at least seem aware of, a notion Silver once referred to as “the evolving social consensus.”

As a result of such outreach, a couple of things happened. One is that Silver became almost inextricable from the game of pro basketball. “We believe in the NBA and we believe in Adam Silver,” LeBron James said during the Sterling affair. These aren’t the same things, though it was often hard to remember that.

Silver also took on a friendly, un-commissioner-like form. He didn’t seem like a boss. He seemed like a resident of NBA Twitter who wrote some good blogs and made it big. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once said of his journalistic tormentor Red Smith: “In me, he felt he had stumbled upon the ultimate stuffed shirt.” One of Silver’s greatest political feats is that he’s almost never called a stuffed shirt.

The thing is, Silver is a stuffed shirt. Only a stuffed shirt (in this case, a lawyer and longtime David Stern apparatchik) gets to be a commissioner. We were reminded of this on Sunday, as Chinese interests cited Morey’s tweet as a reason to pull away from the NBA and the Rockets. The league, facing one door marked “Free Expression” and another marked “Billions of Dollars,” had to make a choice.

The NBA’s first statement was so hedged and word-salady that it was indecipherable. Here Silver’s progressive highlight reel worked against him. If Silver is the guy saluting inclusion and sitting in on symposia, then he knows just what it means to grant the Chinese government the right to be “deeply offended.”

“When it comes down to it, he is a much better listener than Stern is,” said Windhorst. “But as a businessman, I would argue that he’s even more focused.”

“I think Stern felt that power and control were 1A and 1B with revenue,” Windhorst continued. “I think Adam is willing to cede some power and control as long as revenue is number one.”

Such a clear understanding of Silver’s values makes so much of the writing about him sound ridiculous. Last year, a GQ story about a league headphones sponsorship somehow morphed into a tale of Silver’s zest for player empowerment. (“It’s important that our players are allowed to be their authentic selves,” Silver was quoted as saying.) The year before, the magazine declared, “The NBA has established itself as almost a perfect professional league.” There is no perfect sports league any more than there is a perfect American business.

Most writing from NBA pros isn’t so credulous. But Silver has been granted a wide benefit of the doubt that his colleagues in other leagues haven’t. Imagine NFL players gaining new power within the league, and Goodell declaring, at that very moment, that the players were “unhappy.” He would have been ripped as a paternalistic asshole. Yet I had more than one NBA writer argue to me that Silver was taking a menschy interest in his workers’ mental health.

The Silver reckoning was going to come sooner or later. The smart money was on it arriving during the NBA’s coming CBA war, when Silver would be put in the position of arguing that everybody’s favorite players deserved less money. The reckoning came early and from multiple angles. This week, you had writing from NBA regulars like Chris Mannix paired with blasts from Brian Phillips and Drew Magary.

When thinking about how to properly cover Silver, Ted Cruz offers a useful example. Some U.S. senators are better than other senators. Journalists ought to note the distinctions. But a senator, like a sports commissioner, deserves scrutiny merely because he is the kind of person who desires to be a senator. “I have always said Adam Silver is the greatest commissioner in sports,” LeBron James once said. Never forget that is a mighty low bar.