The NBA Now Feels Like the Future and the NFL the Past. But It Wasn’t Destined to Work Out That Way.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

This week, I got invited to an NBA Opening Night party. I’ve been obsessed with sports for more than 40 years, but up to this point, I’d never even heard of an NBA Opening Night party, let alone been invited to one. There are only two games on the NBA schedule on Opening Night, and while they’re fun (76ers–Celtics, Warriors–Thunder), they are, for each team, just one game of 82. We will have forgotten about these games in a week, if it even takes us that long. The games are meaningless. And yet a gaggle of media professionals — while the world’s engulfed in flame all around us — is having a party just to welcome the NBA back. It might not necessarily be reflected explicitly in the ratings just yet, but it does feel like a Rubicon of popular consensus has been crossed: The NBA is the league of the future, and the NFL and MLB are sports of the past. As someone who is old enough to remember at least four different occasions when the NBA was thought to be deader than Dillinger, it’s quite a state of affairs.

By any measure, we are at Peak NBA. Television ratings were up 32 percent last year, at their highest since 2011, an ascension that defies every trend in sports and media right now. Somehow, in-person attendance grew last year at a record pace for the fourth consecutive year. The league, despite a combative union leader who has proven more formidable than any of her counterparts in other sports — one can debate whether Roberts’s insistence on fighting against “cap-smoothing” cost players in the long run during the last CBA negotiations, but I’d argue that’s less an issue with her aggressiveness than the NBA’s insistence on a salary cap in the first place — is in a period of prolonged labor peace, one with legitimate parity of competition, with the best teams coming not from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but from Oakland, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Toronto. And the league’s cool factor, its ability to drive conversation through personality conflicts and ongoing story lines, is basically unparalleled in recent sports culture, whether it’s Joel Embiid roasting other players on Instagram or Russell Westbrook setting fashion trends or LeBron James calling the president “U Bum” on Twitter. The league has never been stronger.

And I wonder if you can track it back to one moment, a moment that predates the cultural battles that the NBA has been navigating magnificently while the NFL has been fumbling all over itself. The pivot moment when the NBA announced itself ready for the new world we were about to inhabit, one where the NBA’s best player can embrace a player blackballed by the NFL and have his power only expand because of it. When the NBA met the moment, rather than receded from it.

It was April 24, 2014 — one year before Donald Trump came down that escalator — when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape by TMZ telling his girlfriend that he didn’t want her bringing black people to Clippers games or on her Instagram, including, of all people, Magic Johnson, perhaps the most universally beloved figure in American sport. The backlash was overwhelming, from players, fans, and other owners alike, culminating in perhaps the greatest track Snoop Dogg has worked on in a decade.

Into this madness stepped new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who had only been on the job for two months. Silver had taken over for David Stern, who had been commissioner for 30 years and loomed so large over the sport, for better and for worse, that many wondered if he was still secretly in charge. It’s not well remembered now, but Silver had initially botched the Sterling situation, saying, the day after the tape was released, that, “I personally think the situation is most unfair to Clippers players and coaches, who have to deal with this distraction in the middle of the playoffs” and “All members of the NBA family should be afforded due process and a fair opportunity to present both sides of the situation.” This is the sort of equivocal “Gotta hear both sides” typically used to protect insider malfeasance, and many thought Silver looked ineffectual and weak in the face of the first existential crisis of his tenure. There’s an alternative history here where Silver continues down this road, going the NFL “Let’s just stay out of it” path. What does that world look like? Does Silver immediately become a Goodell-esque villain? Does the NBA end up with the same white-owners-vs.-black-players problem that the NFL has? Is Donald Sterling actually still the owner of the Clippers?

We’ll never know. Two days later, Silver got it right.

Now, it seems obvious that banning Sterling for life, with palpable fury in his voice, was the correct move for Silver, but few thought, heading into that press conference, that he’d have the guts to do it. After all, you can’t just fire an owner like you can cut a player: Stern had been trying to get rid of Sterling, long considered the blackest sheep of an already dark herd of NBA owners — for years. But Silver went ahead and plunged forward as if he could, laying down the law, real or theoretical, in a way few commissioners have before or since: Owners are accountable too. This may have been mostly rhetorical, but it worked: Players — who had been rumored to be pushing for everybody on the Clippers roster to be made free agents rather than have to work for Sterling — felt heard and respected, LeBron James called Silver a “great leader,” and Sterling was forced to sell the team within the next few months (to Steve Ballmer, of all people, an unalloyed win in that it eventually led to Ballmer doing this).

Silver said earlier this year that it was the most important decision of his tenure. He’s right. It led to, two years later, the NBA saying it wouldn’t play the All-Star Game in North Carolina until they overturned their transgender “bathroom” law. (After the law was overturned, Charlotte got the game back: It’ll be there this year.) But Silver’s move wasn’t just a way to assert his own authority and to side, at last, with his players over an owner. It was forward-thinking in a way that every major corporation has now had to be in the age of Trump, whether it’s Nike signing Colin Kaepernick or Delta no longer offering discounts to NRA members. Silver recognized that there was no such thing as a politics-free zone, and that the way to handle controversy was to attack it head-on rather than react to every twist and turn of the news cycle. This is how commissioners, like presidents, were once supposed to act— in the service of a long-term vision of the health and stability of the collective enterprise. In most sports, these days, they act instead as the owners’ bullying servant — which, technically, they are. But, as Silver showed, they don’t need to behave that way, at least all the time.

Kicking Sterling out not only got the NBA out ahead on issues but, perhaps most important, signaled to his players that they not only would be heard, but should be heard. It wasn’t long after this that players like James and Kobe Bryant began wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups. Stern, by the end of his tenure, was almost openly reviled by some of the players, perhaps most notably for his infamous dress code, requiring players to dress “business casual” and banning “headgear of any kind” and “chains, pendants, or medallions worn over the player’s clothes.” (The irony of this code, which several players reasonably called racist at the time, is that it may have ended up changing men’s fashion forever.) By contrast, Silver made it clear from the start: Players should be themselves. This was a savvy business move for a league that already markets individual players, and it had the added bonus of coming about at a time when the issues that NBA players were concerned about were getting maximum exposure. When accepting an award this year, Silver again reiterated that his league will never “stick to sports,” and received widespread plaudits for it.

This may all seem somewhat intuitive — of course it was a good idea for the NBA to lean into the political moment, especially if it could do so in a way that burnished the star power of its players. But … contrast this with the NFL. Can you imagine how Roger Goodell would have handled one of his owners caught on tape saying something as racist as Sterling had? (And when you look at the ranks of NFL owners … it’s sort of surprising this hasn’t happened yet?) If Goodell has proven anything in the last five years of his commissionership, it’s that: (a) He’ll be a week late to react to any negative news story and will end up just picking a middle of the road solution that pleases no one, and (b) he’ll never, ever do anything that will upset an owner (unless it’s Bob Kraft, and that’s only because the 31 other owners were all yelling at him). Goodell’s antiquated belief that the NFL can navigate the political minefields American culture keeps tossing under his feet without ever having to stand for anything — or to encourage his players, which are roughly the same percentage African-American as the NBA’s, to do so as well — has caused him nothing but headaches and left him open to the whims of Trump in a way Silver never has been. Remember what Trump said to LeBron after the future Hall of Famer called him “U Bum?” Nothing. He said nothing. It’s much easier to bat around someone as weak and wishy-washy as Goodell. Goodell has essentially become Trump’s Jeb Bush.

That one moment could have gone so wrong for Silver. He could have handled it the way Goodell handled Ray Rice, or the concussion crisis, or the kneeling controversy. But he didn’t. He was firm and decisive and clear. Because of that moment, Silver has been able to get away with all sorts of other missteps that would derail most commissioners, whether it’s odd fluctuations on the league’s entry age or the league’s issues with Seattle or the dominance of Golden State, which I’d argue is actually a good thing for the league, but many others, who don’t agree with me, blame Silver and Roberts for allowing them to stack their team and make the league more predictable and less competitive. Silver was selected the most powerful person in sports business last year and was on Time’s 100 most influential people and Fortune’s 50 greatest leaders lists. If you can do that, and have the players on your side, and have your league’s ratings grow every year, you are doing something right. This will all someday fire back on Silver: No commissioner ever stays popular forever. But for now, that single move set the tone for everything that has happened for him and his league since then.

And while we’re doing alternate histories: Imagine if Goodell had followed Silver’s lead when Colin Kaepernick first started kneeling, or when Trump first started tweeting. Imagine if he had pulled a Nike, and taken the public heat, but actually stood behind his players, and his sport. This would have been harder for Goodell, given the demographics of the NFL’s fan base, but it would not have been impossible. It would have made the Trump-ites hate him … but they already do that now anyway. He would have natural allies with the union, with the press, and with corporate sponsors (like Nike) who have discovered that simply running an ad saying, “We accept all people” is a heartwarming statement with minimal blowback in Trump’s America. He would have bought himself such goodwill. But of course we do not live in that alternate history. We live in this one. Which is why the NBA feels like the future. I hope.

The NBA Now Feels Like the Future, and the NFL the Past