Your Move, Mr. Silver

The NBA’s newly minted commissioner faces yet another defining moment — and maybe, just maybe, he will take the stand his NFL counterpart won’t.

Officers on the scene “observed blood, swelling to the nose, lacerations to the forehead and nose area of the victim’s face.” They also “observed blood on the sofa and floor in the sitting area, and on the living room carpet.” — Lawrence, Indiana, Police Department Report, August 7, 2014

Early last Thursday morning, reports began to emerge that former No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, Greg Oden, had been arrested on two counts of battery — after an argument with his girlfriend allegedly ended with the 7-foot, 275-pound center striking the woman in the face. Oden reportedly confirmed details when he communicated freely with police. He even gave an apology:

“Things got out of control and I started to go after the victim. My relative and witness tried to hold me back, but as I swung my arms to move them out of the way, then [sic] punched the victim in the face. I was wrong and I know what has to happen.”

This could be a depressing endnote to a star-crossed career, where the talented Oden was repeatedly and ultimately betrayed by his brittle bones. As of this writing, he remains unsigned for the upcoming season.

Meanwhile, in New York, David Stern is gone, and Adam Silver has now been commissioner of the National Basketball Association for a sliver over six months. Having already been tested by the minefield which was the Donald Sterling situation — and passing with flying colors, by most everyone’s standards — Silver now faces an unfortunate but crucial decision with Oden. This is Silver’s opportunity to start to put his own imprint on the league’s code of conduct and, more importantly, its sense of morality.

Ironically, just a few blocks away from Silver’s office, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday marked his eighth anniversary on the job. Goodell has an owner who’s tested his leadership, too — Jim Irsay’s DUI arrest, and subsequent reports of prescription pill abuse, to this point, have received nary a punishment from the league — but it is the tepid two-game suspension recently handed down to Baltimore’s Ray Rice that has really drawn scorn. You might recall that video showed Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancee (now wife) out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator.

In the wake of the Rice incident, much was discussed about the NFL’s problems with crime. Yes, the arrest rates for professional football players are lower than the national average for other groups, but without context around what NFL players are being arrested for, the overall numbers are meaningless.

Per USA Today’s handy NFL Arrests Database, which tracks arrests since 2000, player incidents involving homicide, guns, sexual assault, and domestic violence significantly exceed the rate for all crimes set against the national average for those in the players’ age group. Per FiveThirtyEight, the league’s relative arrest rate for domestic violence stands at a whopping 55.4 percent for the ages 25 to 29, the highest percentage for all league crimes. This is a harrowing number made even worse when you consider the income level of NFL players, which places them in the top one percent of the U.S., a demographic that sees very little crime in that category.

Here’s FiveThirtyEight’s chart, culled from the USA Today database and set against their findings for national crime rates in this age group:
All said, the relative amount of violent crime in the NFL is a problem, and Goodell continues to not deal with it in any real fashion.

But what of the NBA? Oden is just the latest installment of a long-running series of violence that should have been canceled years ago. Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Craig Ehlo, Delonte West, Dennis Rodman, Jason Richardson … the list goes on and on.

And while Adam Silver’s hands are somewhat clean with respect the league’s past failure to act accordingly, ex-Commish David Stern’s most certainly are not. GothicGinobili’s Aaron McGuire recently noted a disturbing trend in the Association:

  1. Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase in August 2010. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooperation from his ex-girlfriend. There were zero legal or league penalties.
  2. In February 2011, Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female referee during a preseason game, then threatening the ref with physical violence. Despite his refusal to even show up in court, Lowry’s lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and 100 hours of community service. You probably didn’t hear about it, because the NBA said nothing. There were no league penalties.
  3. Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend in September 2012. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, and received one year of probation, a $500 fine (he was making $3.6 million that season) and mandated counseling. In essence, a freebie. There were no league penalties.
  4. Matt Barnes was arrested for the second time in two years in July 2012, after he threatened a police officer. The first arrest stemmed from suspicion of domestic violence. In 2010, under the first allegations, Barnes took to Twitter to plead his innocence: “DON’T LET YOUR EARS WITNESS, WHAT YOUR EYES DIDN’T SEE!!!” Charges were dropped for the domestic dispute and Barnes received a pass on punishment.
  5. Royce White was out of the league before he was even in it, but in September 2013, White was charged in a domestic violence dispute with then-girlfriend Tania Mehra. No legal or league penalties were issued.
  6. Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault in January 2013, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman — who was reportedly drugged — in Blatche’s hotel room. Six years prior, he was arrested for attempting to solicit sex from a female police officer in Washington D.C. Charges against Blatche were dropped, nobody was sentenced, and he played in a regular-season game against the 76ers the same day he was arrested. Oh, and he was re-signed to a brand new contract in the midst of the charges. No legal penalties, no league penalties.
  7. Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault in May 2013, after allegedly pulling a gun on his child’s mother during a visitation. Threats were made, but a trial never took place. The Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke — which might have had more to do with his poor play than the arrest. There were no legal or league penalties.
  8. Domestic assault and violence with a deadly weapon in the presence of a minor, including felony counts of kidnapping was the charge for Oklahoma City’s DeAndre Liggins in August 2013. The vicitim was his girlfriend, Jasmine Horton. The couple is now reportedly considering marriage. The Thunder waived Liggins in the wake of the incident, but receiving no legal penalties or league penalties has opened the door for Liggins to make his comeback in the near future.
  9. Boston’s Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property in September 2013 for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was unfaithful, beating her to the ground and smashing her cellphone. As was the case with Stephenson, Sullinger’s ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court, and thus no legal or league penalties were given.
  10. Kendrick Perkins punched two vehicle passengers in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot in October 2013. He was charged with assault, posted a $150 bond and went back to normalcy. The Thunder never commented on the allegations, and as you can guess, there were no legal or league penalties.

Silver was, of course, the Deputy Commissioner while all of this was going on, and there already have been at least two alleged assaults committed during his tenure as commissioner (prior to this latest incident involving Oden) that also have seen no action by the league.

In April, Dante Cunningham was arrested twice in one week — first for domestic assault by strangulation, and second for sending “terroristic threats” to his ex-girlfriend and violating probation. The league said nothing, though Minnesota did. His trial and charges were evidently dropped, and teams like the Houston Rockets have reported interest in signing the veteran. No legal penalties, no league penalties; he rejoined the Timberwolves immediately after getting out of jail.

In June, Memphis’ James Johnson allegedly choked and slapped his wife, and was charged for domestic assault by strangulation. Charges were dismissed because his wife didn’t appear in court — seeing a trend here? No legal penalties, no league penalties.

And now there’s Oden, who left an ex-girlfriend bloodied on a sofa in his own mother’s home. Did it really matter that he stayed in the home until police arrived? Domestic violence isn’t a mistake, and the fact that there remains a stigma about speaking out after any kind of domestic assault — whether the perpetrator is male or female — requires more diologue. Whether or not Oden is charged legally, this is Silver’s chance to start to get this right, and Oden — because of his big name recognition and limited on-court ability at this point — may be the perfect target to start this move.

In the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal last season in Miami, Roger Goodell took to the podium during Super Bowl week in February and said the following:

“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we have a workplace environment that’s professional. We have to make sure that our players and other employees have that kind of professional workplace environment. What needs to be done? What do we all want? And the No. 1 thing I hear, and the No. 1 thing that I believe, is we all need to get back to respect. It’s respect for each other, respect for the game, respect for your organization, respect for your opponents and the game officials. So, we’re going to focus on this in the offseason.”

It would appear the NFL “workplace” Goodell described ends at the locker room door, and that’s consistent with how he’s cast his lot for eight years. Silver’s dossier is much thinner, though, so Oden’s case is in many ways a perfect opportunity for the NBA’s commissioner to craft and deliver his own message. If he wants to follow up his remarkably strong opening to his tenure, he must hold his players accountable for violent acts.

It’s your move, Mr. Silver.