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Whatever Adam Silver does it will not be enough for some, but his hands are somewhat tied

Apr 28, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT

After years of just ignoring everything Donald Sterling has done — the housing discrimination lawsuits, the stories from former players and front office personnel of racist behavior — the NBA seems finally ready to act on the alleged racist comments by Sterling.

If the consciously non-political Michael Jordan is calling for action, you can bet a lot of other owners are pushing for something to be done. They want this mess cleaned up. This is a league that fines players for anything seen as vaguely detrimental to its image — don’t you celebrate a key bucket with the “big balls” dance — and what Sterling did, no matter how private the moment, is a huge black eye to the league.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he has “broad powers in place under the NBA’s constitution and bylaws that include a range of sanctions, and all of those will be considered depending on the findings of our investigation.”

However, Silver’s hands are somewhat tied — he can only do so much.

MORE: Silver discusses Sterling, vows quick investigation

What he can do will not be enough for some people.

Silver is limited by the NBA’s constitution, which is a private document. What has leaked out from people who have seen it paints a picture that ties Silver’s hands.

• He can’t force Sterling to sell. Essentially the league constitution says the league can only sell a team out from under an owner if said owner is not meeting his financial obligations (not paying his bills) and that is not an issue. Blake Griffin’s checks are clearing. What’s more, Sterling’s style — with his real estate holdings, with everything — is to buy and keep, not sell.

Maybe the other owners could try to force the issue saying, “We no longer want Sterling as a business partner” legal argument, but the very litigious Sterling likely would fight that. And it would get ugly. Or, uglier. And it would drag the issue out for years.

There has been talk the league could force him to hand over the team to his estranged wife as part of joint property laws… but she is her own piece of work. In some of the housing discrimination cases against Sterling it was learned she posed as a government health inspector to gain access to apartments. She was part of the problem.

• Silver can only fine Sterling up to $1 million. That’s the maximum, according to multiple reports. Sterling is worth $1.9 billion dollars according to Forbes, a $1 million fine to him is about the equivalent of you or I getting a parking ticket. It’s annoying, we don’t want to write the check, but it’s not that steep a hit.

• Suspension — this is the hammer Silver really can wield. He can suspend Sterling from any contact with the team or interacting with the front office, keep him from attending games. This would be the biggest blow — for Sterling games are a social, “kiss the ring” kind of event where the people around him gather to enjoy “his team” and “his games.” He basks in the celebrity of it. Take that away and it is more of a blow than any fine would be.

How long a suspension is the question. Through these playoffs for sure (which may not last that long for the Clippers, as distracted as they were Sunday). All of next season seems more reasonable … if Silver can do it. We don’t know what limits there could be on a suspension in the private constitution, but none have been mentioned.

A suspension and fine will not make everyone happy — it does not seem enough for a history of racist issues. This is why David Stern should have dealt with the issue when he could, when he had more serious public offenses that were clearly actionable grounds by the league. But he didn’t, there wasn’t an outcry from the other owners to act. He was seen as the bad owner of a bad team, everyone just ignored him and Stern swept the issues under the rug.

Now it falls to Silver, and the case is based on the audiotape of a private conversation — something not admissible in a court of law (Sterling did not consent to be taped). Combine that with Sterling being very litigious and you have Silver stuck in a spot where no matter what he does some people will be unhappy with him. He has to come down as hard as he can, and even that will have some saying it’s not enough and possibly prompting a lawsuit against him from the other side.

Welcome to the big chair, Silver.

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