NBA owners must be held accountable for racist behavior by Donald Sterling

The NBA is investigating comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling owner that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called "offensive" and "disturbing." (Reuters)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist April 27

Don’t ever confuse wealth with virtue or intellect, that’s Lesson 1 from L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s alleged audiotaped racist harangue. Lesson 2: It’s amazing how dilapidated and vacant a man can look despite his money. Lesson 3: Never underestimate an old reprobate’s proneness to sabotage himself with an attraction to fishnet. As a demonstration of pure, sustained low-lifeness, Sterling’s career couldn’t be meaner.

But put off your urge to shake Sterling until his teeth chatter in his decrepit, offensive mouth, and think about something: What is more embarrassing here, Sterling’s naked bigotry, or the fact that for decades the NBA has tolerated him, a slumlord who doesn’t want blacks in the building? This isn’t just about the Clippers. All of Sterling’s business partners have some explaining to do to their own players. You, Jerry Reinsdorf. You, Mark Cuban.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Truth: New league Commissioner Adam Silver is comparatively helpless to act against Sterling; as my friend, the veteran Bay Area sportswriter Ray Ratto observes, “Only the owners have the throw-weight to do something this big.” It’s all well and good to call for Sterling to be tossed from the league, but a man who works for the owners can’t really discipline an owner at all. Lesson 4 from Donald Sterling is that rich guys show solidarity — until it threatens their self-interest. Which is why a league-wide player boycott may be needed.

Yes, after carefully affording due process, Silver can try to fine or suspend Sterling. He can try to fine or suspend a litigious billionaire, who lost his give-a-ripper sometime back in his flapper days. But NBA players and coaches will still have to contribute to the profit margin of a man who says blacks “smell and aren’t clean.” That quote, by the way, isn’t new. It comes from sworn testimony in a 2002 slumlording case against Sterling for discriminating against tenants, not just blacks, but also Hispanics, who he called lazy drunks, and Koreans, who he deemed too powerless to complain, according to statements compiled by Deadspin.com.

It took a randy, hardboiled divorce case and a leak to TMZ to expose Sterling’s wormy mind to full public view. But it’s surely been common knowledge among NBA owners and executives for years, as far back as 1983 when he allegedly called his own players the N-word during a job interview with Rollie Massimino conducted while drinking champagne. Journalist Jeff Pearlman got the story directly from former Clippers general manager Paul Phipps. An irate Massimino cussed him out and never came back.

This is an owners’ deal, just as forcing Marge Schott out of her controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds was also an owners’ deal. That’s the way business is really done at league levels. The commissioner-employee does the public posturing, while behind the scenes the owners exert the real pressure. It’s interesting to note that though Schott controlled the Reds from 1984 to 1999, it took until 1996 before owners acted against her for her long stream of invective against blacks, Jews and Japanese. They didn’t move on her until she expressed her admiration for Hitler. The public penalty was a suspension; behind the scenes owners got together to pressure her into a sale.

That’s the only way to eject Sterling from the league: through a backroom deal forged by the owners. It will be interesting to watch this unfold. Owners are extremely reluctant to set any precedent that could someday be turned against them. They want it to be nearly impossible to throw their partners out. They set it up that way so it doesn’t ever happen to them.

So what level of critical mass do they have to reach before they will act collectively to get Sterling out of the league? Probably at the point when they have to start answering uncomfortable questions about their own behavior as his business partners. That’s usually when it turns.

Sterling’s fellow owners should be held accountable for him, and his continued existence in the NBA. The best way to do that may be to threaten a league-wide player boycott. Up to now, the calls for a boycott have centered on the Clippers themselves. But as Clippers Coach Doc Rivers remarked, they voted against one because it’s unfair that they’re saddled with the burden and distraction of Sterling’s behavior while they’re trying to win in the playoffs. “Honestly I’m completely against that and they were, too,” Rivers said.

The answer may lie in a suggestion by LeBron James, who said Saturday: “I’ve kind of wavered back and forth if I would actually sit out. . . . But there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There’s no room for him.” If all of the teams left in the playoffs organize around the Clippers, then this isn’t their problem alone. James and Kevin Durant should say: “Your situation is our situation. None of us will take the court until our owners publicly condemn Sterling and promise to act to remove him, regardless of the legal peril.”

It’s a safe guess that the owners have disapproved of Sterling — but they didn’t disapprove of him enough. They should not only have to explain him, but also their own inaction. They will no doubt say it’s a legal problem, that he could sue them for antitrust or breach of agreement if they try to force him out. But they need to decide what’s worse, litigation with Sterling, or continued association with him? If they don’t care about losing their reputations for decency, maybe they will care about losing advertisers. A boycott would reinforce the palpable fear of that.

According to sports law expert Michael McCann, the NBA constitution has some limited language that can force a team sale, if the owner is in financial trouble. They should explore it — find out whether Sterling has debts that can be called. Use their clout to do more investigating of his slumlording. In the meantime, scout up a potential buyer and try to quietly convince him to sell voluntarily.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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