April 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

NBA ignored its Donald Sterling problem for too long

Ownership has its privileges, and few owners in professional sports have used — and abused — their inalienable rights better than Donald Sterling, the billionaire slumlord who has treated the Clippers like one of his rundown rental properties for more than three decades.

Yet, membership has its privileges, too. And as the outrage over Sterling’s most recent alleged racist remarks reverberated far beyond the NBA’s hardwood boundaries — by Monday, everyone from President Obama to Snoop Dogg had weighed in with an opinion — the ball remained in the same court it always did.

That’s with the other 29 members of his exclusive club, his business partners in NBA ownership. They are the ones who must finally decide what to do with the shameless bigot in their midst, the guy whose bizarre, offensive views have been public knowledge for a lot longer than Chris Paul’s crossover dribble.

The NBA is scheduled to make an announcement at 2 today regarding its initial investigation of Sterling. At a harried press conference over the weekend, after the Clippers owner’s alleged comments were first reported by TMZ, league commissioner Adam Silver referenced the “broad powers” at his disposal. But just how far he’ll go remains to be seen.

A suspension seems likely for Sterling, maybe an indefinite one pending a full review by the NBA’s board of governors. Silver also has the ability to fine an owner up to $1 million for “conduct prejudicial or detrimental” to the league, according to Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University’s Sports Law Program. But that seems like a relative pittance for a man whose personal net worth is estimated at nearly $2 billion.

And while the calls for Sterling to sell the team are coming from all corners now — “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” four-time MVP LeBron James said last Saturday — there’s no clear indication the NBA is able to force it to happen or that Sterling would do so willingly. (Ironically, Magic Johnson, whose name is at the center of those audio recordings TMZ released, is one potential buyer, Yahoo! Sports reported.)

Long history

The timing of today’s planned NBA announcement is no coincidence. The Clippers have a game to play tonight, and the league would prefer not to have another scene like the one it saw Sunday, when players silently protested with a variety of uniform alterations — inside-out warm-up jerseys, black wristbands, and so on. They stopped short of boycotting the game, but left that option on the table if the league failed to take disciplinary action.

The league could’ve done something — anything — a long time ago. Because while this venom Sterling was reportedly spewing to his Wikileaks girlfriend is abhorrent, it hardly seems like an aberration coming from the NBA’s longest-tenured owner.

The stories about Sterling go back to his earliest days in the league when, according to former Clippers general manager Paul Phipps, in a story relayed by author Jeff Pearlman, Rollie Massimino stormed out of a coaching job interview with the owner after he used a racial slur to describe his players.

In 1996, Sterling was sued by a former employee for sexual harassment, a case that was settled out of court confidentially. But the disturbing details of that case later surfaced, along with more of Sterling’s misogynistic rants, when the Clippers owner sued another mistress six years later.

In 2009, he paid a then-record $2.75 million settlement in a federal housing discrimination lawsuit in which court depositions showed a disgusting pattern of trying to run off African-American and Hispanic tenants. He also was sued by his former general manager, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, who claimed Sterling’s ultimate goal was to fashion a plantation-style team of “poor black boys from the South ... playing for a white coach.”

Double standard?

Yet, amid all these accusations, nothing ever happened. Perhaps that’s because Sterling’s Clippers essentially were the league doormat, poorly run and perennial losers.

Or perhaps it’s because billionaires and morality clauses often make strange, uncomfortable bedfellows.

Still, it’s a shame former commissioner David Stern, a social progressive in many ways, never saw fit to punish him during his extended stay in office. He found time to institute a dress code for players in an attempt to preserve the league’s image and sense of “professionalism.” But he never found a way to reprimand Sterling for institutionalized harassment?

As another Hall of Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted in an op-ed he wrote Monday, it does seem a bit unseemly now for everyone to suddenly take a stand.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and current chairman of the search committee to find a new players’ union executive director, seemed to echo that sentiment in a strongly-worded letter demanding action from Silver. Among the requests was one asking for an “explanation of why the league has not taken action against (Sterling) to date given the code of conduct that exists for players and owners alike.”

Good luck getting a straight answer on that one.

But just remember, whatever is said today, the commissioner works for the owners and not the other way around — a fact that often gets lost when we discuss the four major U.S. professional sports leagues.

And whatever action is taken now, it won’t change the years of inaction from those who surely knew better.

They own the league — and everything in it — and they always have.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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