Learning from the Donald Sterling interview disaster

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (L) speaks with CNN's Anderson Cooper during an interview scheduled to be broadcast May 12, 2014 in this handout photo by CNN/AC360. Sterling, who was banned for life from the NBA over racist comments, has apologized and asked for forgiveness in his first public statement since the controversy began last month, CNN said on Sunday. REUTERS/CNN/AC360/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SPORT BASKETBALL) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
REUTERS/CNN/AC360/Handout via Reuters

The Donald Sterling interview with Anderson Cooper that aired Monday night is, without question, a study in damage control gone wrong. "What this was to PR, the Hindenburg was to blimps," one CNN host said of the discussion in a post-interview analysis.

The billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who has been banned from the NBA following racist remarks he made that were recorded, sat down with Cooper for his first interview about the controversy that has been engulfing professional basketball.

Yet what was intended to be an image-building mea culpa — Sterling began the interview by apologizing and asking for forgiveness — quickly morphed into a public relations morass in which he blamed his initial remarks on jealousy, made insensitive remarks about African Americans' philanthropy, and unloaded on basketball icon Magic Johnson.

"What has he done?" Sterling said of Johnson. "Can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson, what has he done? ... What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV. Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background."

What we should study instead of Sterling's forehead-slapping interview are the textbook responses by three other basketball leaders. In reaction to the remarks, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, incoming Clippers CEO Dick Parsons and former basketball star Magic Johnson were models of restraint — exactly what's needed when a crisis has the potential to distract both players and fans.

Rivers, whose team is in the midst of the NBA playoffs and whose responsibilities have expanded enormously in recent days, knows he has too much on his plate to overly engage in a public spat. He defended Johnson, made it clear he didn't care for Sterling's comments, but didn't go any further.

"I'll stand by Magic every day of the year because I've known him for a long time," Rivers said Monday. "Having said that, I don't know what's going on out there. I tried not to get involved in that part of it right now. Whatever it is, that doesn't sound like much of an apology to me." (Rivers' son, many will recall, also had an eloquent response to Sterling's original comments, recalling the racism his family has faced in a thoughtful series of tweets a couple of weeks ago.)

Meanwhile, Parsons, the former Citigroup and Time Warner chairman who was brought in as the interim CEO of the Clippers until a decision is made about the team's future, had a similarly evenhanded retort. "He's a little late for sure, but beyond that, you know, I'm here to help turn one of the burners off under the pot, not to turn it up higher," Parsons said. "So I think I'll keep my personal views personal and just stay focused on what are we going to do to keep this team on the ascend as it is right now."

It was one of several things Parsons has said since being named interim CEO that make it look like the Clippers are getting the levelheaded leadership they need. In addition to giving Rivers more responsibility to make basketball decisions for the team, Parsons has said his next job is to meet with other Clippers staffers "who have been sitting at ground zero for 10 days. Nobody's reached out to them, they don't know which end is up." Parsons said in an interview with ESPN he wants to "just kind of give them a sense that what they've done has been appreciated, is appreciated" and tell them that "they've shown some character and kept this thing afloat and moving in the right direction."

Finally, there are Magic Johnson's tweets. The basketball icon could have hit back with details about his philanthropic activities, his business accomplishments, or his critical role in transforming public opinion about HIV and AIDS over the past 20 years. And perhaps he will tonight, when he too will speak with Anderson Cooper and is bound to face questions about Sterling's accusations and whether he might be interested in purchasing the team. But in the immediate aftermath, following a series of tweets about Monday night's playoff game, Johnson simply wrote: "I'd rather be talking about these great NBA Playoffs than Donald Sterling's interview." In one final message, he said "no more Sterling talk" after this week.

Let's hope he keeps that above-the-fray approach in his sit-down with Cooper. At a time like this, the NBA has shown that it has leaders worth studying and emulating — a good thing given how much they are needed.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · May 12