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

The NBA was right to investigate an audio recording allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments to his girlfriend. Before branding someone as a racist, it’s best to have incontrovertible proof.

And if the NBA determines Sterling made the hateful remarks, its next move should be a no-brainer as well: Commissioner Adam Silver must bar Sterling from managing the Clippers and begin the process of forcing him to sell the franchise. Any person who holds the views expressed by the male voice on the tape should not continue to reap financial reward from an industry whose workforce is overwhelmingly African American. It’s as clear as the disgust the person on the tape has for African Americans.

As the furor over the racially offensive remarks — the male voice on the recording stresses he doesn’t want the woman to be seen in public with minorities and singled out Los Angeles Lakers Hall of famer Magic Johnson — obtained by TMZ spread throughout the league Saturday, coaches and players expressed outrage while calling for Silver to take swift action. This is the first major test of Silver’s leadership since he replaced longtime commissioner David Stern in February, and how he handles the problem will help define his tenure in the league’s most powerful position.

As Johnson, who wrote on Twitter that he would not attend another Clippers game while Sterling owned the franchise, and current players took to social media to make their feelings known, the league was working under a de facto deadline to move beyond the fact-finding phase of the process. With the playoffs underway (Sterling’s Clippers are scheduled to face the Golden State Warriors on Sunday on national television), the NBA would be best served by reaching a resolution quickly, or risk having the matter mar its most important time of the year. Silver’s biggest concern should be the potential for player revolt.

Although the Clippers are not expected to boycott the game in protest of what they believe Sterling has said, this is a powder-keg situation. If there’s a perception that the league is dragging its feet on the investigation, or reaches a resolution players deem unacceptable, Silver could be faced with unrest that not only ruins the postseason, but stirs a crisis of confidence in his leadership. For Silver and the NBA’s other 29 owners, that could cause far-reaching damage to the league. Years ago, Major League Baseball faced a similar crisis with former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott.

During her tenure at the Reds’ helm, Schott slurred African Americans, Jews and the Japanese. From 1996 to ’98, MLB banned Schott from managing the team because of statements she made supporting the views of Adolf Hitler. Under pressure from within MLB, Schott, who died in 2004, eventually sold her stake in the Reds.

Assuming it is proven that Sterling is that type of blockhead racist, Silver would be within his authority to suspend him. Ousting him as an owner would be more difficult.

Sterling, the NBA’s longest-tenured owner, often caused headaches for Silver’s predecessor. Sterling used to top every list of the professional sport’s worst owners. But a Ping-Pong ball resulted in the Clippers winding up with Blake Griffin, Chris Paul followed soon thereafter in a trade and things have been trending upward for the Clippers since.

With retirement drawing near for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ basketball operation in disarray since legendary owner Jerry Buss died last year, the Clippers are poised to reach the mountaintop in the Los Angeles sports market for the first time in their history. There’s no way Sterling would want to give up his seat at the table when he’s preparing to move to the head of it.

In all likelihood, the real estate magnate would use his considerable resources to squash whatever moves, whether out in the open or behind closed doors, the league may make to pressure him to sell. And you know what the NBA should do? Fight back even harder.

Perhaps some could slither out of a jam like this by apologizing, committing to undergoing sensitivity training and vowing to change. Sterling shouldn’t be among them. There’s such anger among players about the language on the tape, in part, because there have been whispers for decades about Sterling’s views on race.

While covering the Clippers as a beat writer from 2005 to 2007, I heard some of them. In private, Sterling regularly made off-color remarks, people within the organization told me, and said some things that were outright racist. Sterling never used inappropriate language in my presence, and the team employees who were critical of him declined to go on the record. There was a lot of smoke — and you know how the rest of it goes.

Sterling’s money has enabled him to create a carefully crafted image as a philanthropist. In fact, Sterling is scheduled to be honored next month by the L.A. chapter of NAACP. Of course, many people throughout history have masked racism in their heart. The male voice on the tape says he is “living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”

If Sterling spoke those words, he shouldn’t remain in the culture much longer. It would be Silver’s job to force him to leave.

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