Why were Sterling’s comments – made in September during a taped (at his request) conversation with his girlfriend/assistant - about blacks so revolting as to warrant a national firestorm that led to a $2.5 million fine, a lifetime ban from the NBA and the unprecedented effort by his fellow owners to remove him from the league?
As a slumlord he refused to rent to minorities because, in his words, “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” That opinion, uttered years ago, came to light when the federal government sued Sterling for housing discrimination. And yet no one in the NBA, least of all former commissioner David Stern, felt those comments warranted so much as a slap on the wrist.
Fast forward to last month. Why were Sterling’s comments – made in September during a taped (at his request) conversation with his girlfriend/assistant – about blacks so revolting as to warrant a national firestorm that led to a $2.5 million fine, a lifetime ban from the NBA and the unprecedented effort by his fellow owners to remove him from the league? The answer can be summed up in one word: Money.
While Sterling’s earlier comments revealed the kind of person everyone knew him to be, they only tangentially involved the league. When Sterling was repeatedly fined for violating federal equal housing law, it was merely money out of his pocket. Furthermore, it wasn’t as if the man was the only billionaire owner in the NBA who sported a checkered past and a shady resume.
But this time was different. Sterling’s comments affected the entire league. In addition to Clippers’ sponsors who were making a mad dash to distance themselves from the owner’s comments, a number of league sponsors publicly stated they were reevaluating their commitments to the sport. Angry fans held protests around the league and threatened to cancel their season tickets. Players on several teams discussed the possibility of walking out during what has been described as the best playoffs in recent memory. The Clippers sleep walked through game four of their first round series against the Golden State Warriors, making a mockery of the sport. It was only a matter of time before the league’s television partners began pressuring the league to take action against Sterling.
So NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sprang into action. He consulted with outside legal counsel, huddled with key owners and met with Kevin Johnson, former NBA star, current mayor of Sacramento and head of the search committee charged with finding the next leader of the players’ association. And then Silver took decisive action.
It’s not as if Sterling will be missed in the NBA boardroom. His fraternity brothers have spoken nary a complimentary word about him in the more than 30 years he has owned the Clippers, first in San Diego and now in Los Angeles, a move he made against the league’s wishes. But Sterling sued the league in an effort to remain in Tinsel Town. After long and acrimonious litigation, the parties agreed to settle the case for $6 million, a mere pittance for a billionaire but enough to earn him the enmity of his fellow owners forever.
There was another major difference between the release of Sterling’s most recent tirade against blacks and his earlier comments. This time, the players and their union were outraged. After all, failing to rent to an anonymous black person – someone the players didn’t know – could be ignored so long as Sterling’s paychecks didn’t bounce. But Sterling’s racist comments about former NBA great Magic Johnson, a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and someone who is often credited with helping to save the league, hit too close to home. So the players demanded action. Their outspoken and unanimous position leaves the owners little choice but to vote to oust Sterling once and for all.
Rarely have we seen such harmony between players and owners in the NBA. However, by acquiescing to the players’ demands, NBA owners have effectively given them a seat at the table in running league affairs. Will the players also expect to be consulted on the new Clippers’ owner whenever that day arrives? If so, and Silver and the owners ignore their wishes, will all the goodwill and camaraderie initially engendered as a result of the Sterling mess disappear?
While they are motivated for the wrong reason, nonetheless, Silver and the NBA owners deserve accolades for what they are doing to rid the NBA of the stench of Donald Sterling.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.© Copyright 2014 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed