It’s useful to step back for a moment and remember that this is not a sudden, heretofore unknown side of Sterling being unearthed. Rather, this is just the first time Sterling’s behavior has been the subject of quite so much scrutiny, shining for the first time the brightest possible light on his extensive and unbelievable history.
Consider that Bomani Jones wrote a story headlined “Sterling’s racism should be news” in 2006. Again: 2006. Eight years and 351 losses by the Clippers ago. Jones wrote this after Sterling was sued for housing discrimination. In the lawsuit, Sterling was accused of refusing to rent apartments to black people. (This followed a different lawsuit filed in 2003 alleging that Sterling tried to drive out black and Hispanic tenants, a suit that was settled with an undisclosed financial settlement that was believed to be quite sizable.) As Jones pointed out, the story didn’t really draw much attention at the time.
Sterling was ordered in 2009 to pay a $2.725 million settlement, the largest ever obtained by the Justice Department for such a housing discrimination case. (Sterling and his wife denied any wrongdoing.)
That same year, former Clippers executive and NBA Hall of Fame member Elgin Baylor filed a lawsuit alleging decades of racist behavior by Sterling. Among other things, the suit claimed that Sterling said things like “I’m offering a lot of money for a poor black kid,” and said he wanted the team to be made up of “poor black boys from the South” with a white coach. (The racial claims were dropped before the trial; a jury rejected the lawsuit in 2011.)
The other stories are plentiful. Here’s Sterling allegedly using a racial slur when talking with a head coaching candidate during the early 1980s. Here’s Sterling testifying about paying a woman for sex. Here’s someone who worked at a building Sterling owned saying in sworn testimony that he heard Sterling say the following: “I don’t like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house.” (Peater Keating’s story for ESPN The Magazine in 2009 outlined a lengthy array of things Sterling was accused of saying; in the story, Keating noted that Sterling’s behavior was largely not being covered by the media.)
These are not one or two examples taken out of context over his decades as a public figure. These are things that have long been known to sports fans, a record of behavior that has cost him millions and been the subject of lawsuits and criticism. As The New York Times put it on Monday: “Sterling’s behavior is not exactly a secret. It is a matter of public record.” Deadspin has documented this history time and time again.
“Why Sterling is still around is beyond me,” Tommy Craggs wrote for Deadspin in 2009. “Sterling is making the league look bad, and its apparent indifference toward Sterling’s legal issues is making the NBA look even worse,” Jemele Hill wrote for ESPN the same year. Dave Zirin, in his 2010 book “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love,” wrote about Sterling’s “flair for racism” and “panache for prejudice.”
Yet, it took an audio recording allegedly capturing Sterling saying astonishingly bigoted things for the world to finally notice. TMZ posted the initial recording; Deadspin followed that by posting a longer version. (The Clippers have said they don’t know if the tape is legitimate and pointed out that the woman on the tape is being sued by the Sterling family.)
This incident is clearly different, owing to a combination of what he said, the fact that people can hear it for themselves and the era in which he said it. In the past, Sterling’s comments were delivered through testimonies and depositions. Offensive statements made during a deposition and reprinted later can spark an outcry, as Paula Deen can attest to, but the Deen episode occurred with someone who was much more famous than Sterling. This episode with the audio recording combines offensive comments with an easy way for people to hear a real human being say these things.
In addition, while it often seems like social media exists largely so people can get caught saying offensive things (remember Justine?), this era also lets controversies spread at a faster clip than ever before. Very often, these controversies burn bright and are quickly forgotten. But the age of outrage also produces occasions like this one, where a long-standing story — Donald Sterling’s history — is finally elevated to the forefront of our culture.
Even if the circumstances surrounding this incident are different, this isn’t the first time an owner of a professional sports team has expressed a racially offensive sentiment or sentiments. Ted Stepien, the former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was quoted three decades ago as saying “I think the Cavs have too many blacks.” (Stepien’s franchise then made so many poor trades that the league announced he needed approval before making any moves.) David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, helped broker a deal to get Stepien to sell the team. Marge Schott was forced out as owner of the Cincinnati Reds after making a string of comments about blacks, gays, Jews and Hitler.
At this point, it does appear likely that Sterling’s time as an owner is finally coming to a close, and not just because of the public outcry. Rather, the comments in the recording are starting to impact the one thing that we know actually gets leagues and owners to take decisive action: money. So far, Virgin America, CarMax, State Farm and Kia have all announced they are ending sponsorships of the Clippers, with others likely to follow. (State Farm runs those omnipresent Cliff Paul ads that feature Chris Paul, the star point guard for the Clippers and the president of the National Basketball Players Association; Blake Griffin, the other star Clipper, has an endorsement deal with Kia.)
These announcements seem to mark the beginning of the end for Sterling. We saw this just a few months ago in Arizona, where a controversial bill would have let businesses deny service to gay customers. The bill was roundly criticized by many businesses, and it seemed like it could have endangered the state’s chances of hosting the next Super Bowl, so the bill was vetoed.
It’s unclear right now what the league will do. The NBA says it will make an announcement on Tuesday. Players have said they want the maximum possible punishment for Sterling. NBA commissioner Adam Silver (who took that job in February) referenced “broad powers in place under the NBA’s constitutional bylaws” in discussing what sanctions could follow an investigation.
We don’t know what is actually in these bylaws because they aren’t public (something taxpayers should remember the next time an NBA team asks for millions to upgrade their arena). But Jeffrey Kessler, a sports lawyer who participated in talks during the NBA’s lockout in 2011 (amid some controversy), said he thinks the league could force the team’s sale. (Kessler also said it doesn’t matter if the recording was made illegally, because the NBA “is not a court of law.”) And Michael McCann noted that even though forcibly removing Sterling is unlikely, the NBA could just suspend him indefinitely.
The NBA will hold a news conference on Tuesday at 2 p.m. The Clippers host the Golden State Warriors for Game 5 of their playoff series a little more than eight hours later.