There would have been no forfeits had the players decided not to play, especially not after the suits began pulling sponsorships and treating Sterling like kryptonite. Silver would have suffered even worse optics for trying to suspend players for protesting the indefensible Sterling when the Clippers' own corporate partners had run for cover. The money was no longer a cover because there was Sterling on tape awash in his superiority, reminding them all -- LeBron, Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Magic and Chris Paul -- that they were property. They were millionaires but still not part of the club. The players would have forced the respect they were demanding. The star players could have led, providing protection for the less talented players more vulnerable to retribution. They could have sat in the locker room for an hour. The NBA would have had to listen. They have the money, and they would have had real power. Silver would have had to listen to them and respect them as one body.
It looked as if Sterling being shown up by his girlfriend just might be the issue around which players were willing to rally. Maybe this was the issue serious enough to mobilize a group of players so enormously wealthy that they have been able to insulate themselves from the knuckles the rest of us must dodge.
Instead, the Clippers turned their warm-up jerseys inside-out and tossed them at half court and kept on playing. The players showed outrage, but they showed outrage and kept on playing. Remember that all the players initially asked for was for Sterling to be suspended for the rest of the playoffs. Some players -- like West -- spoke strongly, but collectively, they went back to their place in the field. Even an outraged James fell into line, saying that Silver would handle it, as if he ever represented their interests. The players forgot or refused to believe deeply enough that they are the NBA. James and Miami, in solidarity with his friend Chris Paul and the Clippers, also turned their jerseys inside-out before sweeping Charlotte, and at that moment the threat of what was possible appeared once more. But the moment was over. Maybe there would be no revolution.
Roger Mason Jr., vice president of the players' association, said a leaguewide boycott of players for Tuesday's playoff games -- not just Clippers-Warriors -- was imminent and depended on Silver's performance. Such a collective action would have reverberated throughout the league, at every future bargaining session, at every league function, every time the owners acted. The owners would have thought twice. They would have remembered the time the players shut down the game during the playoffs, the time they showed that they were bigger and more resolute than the short-term self-interest of winning a trophy.
Yet the players won anyway. The victory was not total: As Sterling grew more isolated, he never could have survived. And the truth is that the players still decided to trust Silver, to remain tethered, to work inside of the system instead of trusting their power to tear it down.