The judgment was swift and sweeping. “Banned for life” has a nice ring to it. The decision probably made a lot of people at the NBA feel like they stood up for the values of the Association, and assured that they won fans not only on their basketball courts, but also in the ever-present court of public opinion.
Here’s the problem. The NBA is going to be hard-pressed to make a legal case for forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers. Therefore, they took actions that weren’t legal in nature, but moral. This suggests that the NBA operates according to a set of values—a code of ethics, that Sterling’s comments violated. If that’s the case, and the NBA is indeed a values-driven organization, then they didn’t go far enough.
Certainly everyone there knew that Sterling was a racist long before this week. Yet somehow a guy like that rose to power within the NBA “system," got filthy rich off of it, and was allowed a public, front row seat for three decades. And it’s not just Sterling. How many other incidents that are anything but values-based have the citizens of the NBA been accused of over the years? Between rape charges, domestic violence charges and corruption charges, the case for Sterling’s comments creating shock and awe within the culture is thin, at best.
I’m all for the NBA standing up for its values. But I’ve spent my career working for companies and organizations with real values, and creating cultures of purpose for those who seek it. And I’m sorry, NBA, but you are no Peace Corps.
The good news is that it’s never too late to change your culture. However, it’s a very heavy lift and this week’s decision was the light jog around the court. Here are the three most important things the NBA should do right now:
1) Publish your values statement. If you have one you stand for, let’s see it. Make it public. Show us the basis upon which you made the decision about Sterling so that it sets a standard for all future decisions.
2) Identify areas of improvement organization-wide. Don’t stop with Sterling. There have to be other known offenders of your values at the owner level, as well as among the players. Show us that you recognize that this wasn’t an isolated incident.
3) Raise the stakes. Clippers players turning their t-shirts around was a nice gesture, but it wasn’t enough. Had the players walked off the court and refused to play, it would have said even more.
Everyone in and around the NBA needs to do more to demonstrate the extent to which their values matter, and what’s at stake when they are violated.
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