NBA set to address Donald Sterling case as sponsors cut ties with Clippers

The NBA said it will announce the results of its investigation Tuesday into racially insensitive comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, but already his franchise is paying a price as some of its sponsors severed or suspended their relationships with the club.

CarMax pulled its nine-year sponsorship of the Clippers, saying in a statement it “finds the statements attributed to the Clippers’ owner completely unacceptable.” Mercedes-Benz, Virgin America airlines and the Chumash Casino Resort in California followed suit in cutting ties. State Farm announced it is “taking a pause in its relationship” with the team, while Kia Motors, Sprint, Red Bull, Yokohama Tire and Lumber Liquidators were among companies that also said they were suspending advertising with the Clippers.

Steve Stoute, chief executive of Translation, a marketing firm connected to State Farm, urged the insurance company and others to suspend sponsorship of the team because of comments by Sterling that stirred outrage over the weekend. State Farm has an advertising campaign featuring Clippers guard Chris Paul, who is also president of the National Basketball Players Association.

“I’m telling the brands, ‘Let’s pull sponsorship,’ starting with State Farm,” Stoute said on ESPN. “. . .When you have things like this taking place, somebody has to stand up.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver could announce a suspension of Sterling at a news conference Tuesday. Details of the NBA’s constitution are not available publicly, so it’s unknown whether the league would have grounds to expel an owner or pressure him to sell. Suspensions also are uncharted territory; a commissioner has never used such a measure against a team owner.

Other options include fining Sterling, which would seemingly satisfy few of his critics. The largest fine in NBA history was $3.5 million, levied in 2000 against the Minnesota Timberwolves for circumventing the salary cap; that amount would represent a tiny fraction of Sterling’s estimated net worth of $1.9 billion.

“The fine is not enough,” said Hunter Frederick, an entertainment crisis manager based in the Los Angeles area. “He is a billionaire. I think there is a lot of pressure to let him completely go, to make him sell.”

In 2010, the NBA announced it would take over the New Orleans Hornets from longtime owner George Shinn, but that was a financially motivated move made against an owner who could neither afford his team’s operating costs nor find a buyer.

Major League Baseball twice suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for racist remarks; she sold her controlling interest in the team under pressure in 1999. More recently, Major League Soccer stripped control of Chivas USA this past February from owner Jorge Vergara, after several racial discrimination lawsuits were filed against the team.

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers gave his team the day off Monday, a day after it was routed at Golden State in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series. In a team-issued statement, Rivers said, “I can’t even begin to tell you how upset I am and our players are” about Sterling’s comments.

Rivers also told reporters in a conference call he turned down a chance to talk to Sterling.

“I was asked, do I need to talk with Donald, and I passed, quite honestly,” Rivers said, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t think right now is the time or the place, for me, at least. I just took a pass.”

Before Sunday’s game, Clippers players staged a silent protest against Sterling, removing their warmup jackets to reveal shirts turned inside-out to conceal the team logo. Then they proceeded to get stomped by the Warriors, 118-97. The Clippers will host Game 5 on Tuesday night. Sterling, normally a courtside fixture at Clippers home games, is not expected to attend.

The furor over Sterling erupted Saturday, when the Web site TMZ posted an audio recording of a telephone conversation that allegedly occurred between Sterling, the NBA’s longest-tenured owner, and a woman believed to be his girlfriend.

The man asked the woman to avoid being seen in public with African Americans and to not invite them to Clippers games. The man also urged the woman to delete a photo of her with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson from her Instagram account.

“Yeah, I believe he said those things. But I still want to make sure,” Rivers said during the conference call. “As far as believing those things? I heard what he said. Until someone tells me differently, you usually listen to what people say. I haven’t given him his due process. I haven’t given him an opportunity to explain himself and quite honestly right now I don’t want him to. I want to wait for that further judgment.”

There were calls for fans and other Clippers sponsors to express their opposition to Sterling’s remarks.

“Corporations have a choice. They can either continue aligning with Donald Sterling, or stand up and end their association with Sterling and his racist, dehumanizing language and actions,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, an online civil rights group, in a statement. Robinson said its members “will continue to raise their voices, and hold those that continue associating with Sterling accountable.”

State Farm also has a close relationship with Air Jordan, whose shoes are featured in the insurance company’s ads. Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, said Sunday he was “disgusted” as a player and “completely outraged” as an owner by Sterling’s alleged comments.

In a telephone interview Monday, Michael McCann, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and a frequent speaker and writer on NBA matters, predicted Silver could indefinitely suspend Sterling. That, he said, would buy the league time to thoroughly investigate the recording’s authenticity while also removing Sterling from his team’s line of sight.

“That allows them to put their focus back on what they want to be focused on,” McCann said, “which is playing games.”

Mike Wise contributed to this report.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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