Discover more from The Sports Column
BURNED TWICE BY JA MORANT, SILVER MUST THROW DOWN A ONE-YEAR BAN
The NBA commissioner has been embarrassed as weak by the defiant star, who brandished a firearm for a second time, and in a nation that must crack down on gun violence, a forceful suspension is needed
This isn’t another file pile on Adam Silver’s desk, another day at the corner office for the NBA commissioner. This is a monumental opportunity to target an American disease, the anarchy of gun violence, while our elected officials allow daily life to degenerate into a perpetual shooting range.
We live in a country where firearms are the leading cause of death among young people, where we can’t drive for coffee without threats of road-rage crossfire, where regularly scheduled mass shootings are condemned by global leaders who fear for their teams at the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Amid this ongoing horror, assuming he doesn’t have to dodge a random bullet, Silver should make an urgent, definitive statement that transcends his role as a sports boss.
Nothing he will do in his tenure is more critical than how he punishes Ja Morant. He’s the 23-year-old fool/tool who brandished a handgun a second time on an Instagram Live feed, after he lost $40 million and eight games the first time and evidently didn’t get the message. We don’t care about the league’s shiny, new collective bargaining agreement. We don’t care about upcoming media windfalls that will generate more billions and even larger max deals for superstars. We don’t care about a recycling bin filled with accomplished coaches. Nor do we care, comparatively, about who wins the championship in a few weeks and whether Playoff Jimmy Butler spooks Boston leprechauns.
What we want to know is whether Silver has real teeth this time. In a nine-year reign in which he has proudly empowered players, will he do more than issue another pedestrian suspension that Morant will mock again? Clearly, Ja doesn’t care about losing money or face or reputational standing. Clearly, he prefers hanging out with rotten seeds in a gang culture that he and his family refuse to shake. Clearly, he doesn’t care about being a role model to kids who wear his sneaker line and love his freewheeling game. Clearly, he doesn’t care about the NBA or the Memphis Grizzlies or his future in a sport that had been very good to him.
So kick him out of the league for a year, without pay — an entire season.
Enforce the monster clause in the CBA, the one requiring players to “not do anything that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests” of a team or the league. Stay firm if the Players Association balks. Then tell Ja Morant that he’s on his own, that life is fleeting, that he’ll never recover the fortunes he’s pissing away, and maybe you’ll see him before the 2024-25 season.
And if he ends up in prison or dies, so be it.
As it is, Morant is a one of one, for all the wrong reasons. Nobody else in this world gets a third chance after flouting a handgun twice. Most of us would have been fired and blacklisted by employers after the first video. If it were anyone but a dazzling showman who has all-time-great potential, he already would have been banned indefinitely. Silver was a marshmallow in March, issuing a brief suspension that let Morant’s handlers employ a watery public-relations ruse, something about a Florida counseling program. One reason for the commish’s soft treatment: The CBA wasn’t quite finalized, and Silver wanted nothing to disrupt the long-term labor peace necessary for a possible tripling of broadcast rights fees.
The decision backfired and left Silver looking weak and ineffectual. Morant burned him, made him look bad, as the late David Stern wonders somewhere why his successor irresponsibly dropped the ball. In 2010, Gilbert Arenas was suspended indefinitely without pay by Stern after bringing guns into the locker room in Washington, which led to Arenas and a teammate pointing the weapons at each other. The only difference: Morant’s firearm sins were committed in the wee hours inside a Denver strip club, then inside a vehicle apparently associated with his best friend and worst influence, Davonte Pack, whose social-media account posted Morant with the gun last weekend. Silver should be more than embarrassed and mortified. He has been exposed as soft and money-driven, a leader so committed to marketing his league that he’ll let a young star stomp on his chest. Draymond Green was suspended one game for stepping on an opponent. Morant was banned just eight games for waving a gun. Disproportionate to proper justice, wouldn’t you say?
It’s time to throw the book at him. With his five-year, $194 million max deal due to begin next season, a one-year ban would cost Morant almost another $40 million on top of the $39-million contract addendum lost when voters kept him off the All-NBA team. Will the drain of $80 million wake him up? Nike and Powerade have pulled ads. NBA players and athletes in other sports are crucifying him. He is a media pariah. How much more leverage does Silver need? Do your damned job, Adam. You aren’t just a commissioner now. You’re an American enforcer, laying down your laws about guns, even if the nation is paralyzed in a senseless divide and a state such as Tennessee, where Morant works and lives, can’t charge him with a crime. This is about sending a robust, shivers-up-spines message to players in the league and fans who follow the league, including too many who think guns are cool — and cooler now that Morant is waving them so casually.
“Honestly, I was shocked when I saw that video," Silver told ESPN in his only public remarks on the matter. “Now we're in the process of investigating it, and we'll figure out exactly what happened to the best we can. The video is a bit grainy and all that, but I'm assuming the worst.”
There’s nothing grainy here. The worst is as sure as a gunshot wound. Does Silver not realize his come-to-papa talk two months ago — after which an apologetic Morant vowed to attempt “better methods to deal with stress” and try to be “more responsible, more smarter and (stay) away from all the bad decisions” — was nothing but a smirk-and-duck scam? When Silver said his conduct then was "irresponsible, reckless and potentially very dangerous,” is it not obvious now that those words didn’t resonate?
“We talked directly about the consequences first,” said Silver, looking more bewildered than angry as he spoke before the draft lottery. “Before we got to a subsequent potential to have done something wrong, we were very focused on the misconduct that was in front of us at the time. Frankly, most of our conversation was about how incredibly serious the first incident was of waving a firearm on social media.
“Again, the consequences — an eight-game suspension — was pretty serious and something that he, at least to me, seemed to take incredibly seriously in that time. And we spoke for a long time about not just the consequences that could have on his career, but the safety issues around it — he could have injured, maimed, killed himself, someone else with an act like that — and also the acknowledgment that he's a star. He has an incredibly huge following, and (we discussed) my concern — and I thought he shared with me — that millions, if not tens of millions, of kids globally would have seen him do something that was celebrating in a way that act of using a firearm in that fashion. So I at least was left with the sense that he was taking this incredibly serious.”
Not so. Shortly after Silver spoke Tuesday night, Morant responded with another statement that actually sought more public empathy. “I know I’ve disappointed a lot of people who have supported me,” he said. “This is a journey and I recognize there is more work to do. My words may not mean much right now, but I take full accountability for my actions. I’m committed to continuing to work on myself.”
A journey? Don’t insult our intelligence by invoking self-help b.s. hatched and written by his team. Ja Morant is correct only when he says his words mean nothing. He can work on himself and find new friends over the next year. Or, he can remain in the guns-and-trouble culture forever. Whatever path he chooses, the NBA will dribble on without him, Planet Earth will keep rotating on its axis, and basketball stars who behave will live wonderful lives.
He still can grow up, stop packing heat, return in a rehabilitated mode and resume an electric career for the next decade and a half. It’s better to burn out, as a high-pitched poet once sang, than fade away. But this is America, 2023, and if Ja Morant keeps fondling handguns, one pull of the trigger by one of his magical basketball fingers could result in another grim statistic. He can ponder that truth in stark isolation. We’re sick of him, and if Silver wants us to support his multi-billion-dollar enterprise, he will address a country’s larger fears and carry out our disgust accordingly.
One year. Nothing less. Or the NBA might need a new commissioner.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.