NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also urged the league's Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
Bigotry won’t be eradicated, not in our lifetime, certainly not in Donald Sterling’s lifetime. That’s the sad reality, but it’s not the point.
The point is, every direct shot at the beast of ignorance sends a message: No one should tolerate intolerance. The NBA tolerated L.A. Clippers owner Sterling for too long, and while it took sleazy circumstances and a privately recorded conversation to change, it changed with swift, pounding impact Tuesday.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, barely three months on the job, did exactly what he had to do, banning Sterling from the game — from any NBA event — for life and urging the league’s Board of Governors to force him to sell the team. It requires a 75-percent majority vote of the 29 other owners, but Silver sounded confident it would happen. Numerous owners spoke out quickly, including the Pistons’ Tom Gores and the Cavaliers’ Dan Gilbert.
“I am proud of Adam Silver for providing the leadership and strength necessary in this situation,” Gores said in a release. “He has my full support.”
Slightly more than 72 hours after tapes surfaced of Sterling making racist comments to his girlfriend and angrily demanding she not bring black people to Clippers games, the verdict and punishment came all at once, and could have widespread implications. A precedent has been set, and I bet commissioners in the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball were watching closely, well aware bad behavior can extend from the playing fields to the owners’ suites.
There’s no indication yet Sterling will accept the punishment or respond with legal wrangling. But the NBA had to take decisive action or suffer severe damage, from angry players to an alienated public. This was never about what the players should do. A boycott would’ve caused more damage, millionaires protesting the degrading words of a billionaire in the midst of the playoffs, with the Clippers a championship contender.
This was about what the league and its owners should do, and some questioned whether they’d hit with full force. Silver did, delivering the news with unflinching firmness. He said he was personally outraged, and he looked it. He appeared a bit nervous, which made it seem more authentic. That’s important, because in today’s fake-apology, fake-remorse world, this had to be real.
“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views,” Silver said. “They simply have no place in the NBA.”
Or in society, although we know those views exist. Sterling has a history of bigoted behavior, much of it buried in lawsuit filings. In 2009, he paid nearly $3 million to settle a Justice Department suit alleging he discriminated against blacks and other minorities in his rental properties.
That’s the disgusting part of this, that when the tape surfaced, few doubted its authenticity. It’s amazing the shield that money provides. The L.A. Chapter of the NAACP gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award and was preparing to give him another for his donations to the community. You could argue as the NBA’s longest-tenured owner — 32 years — Sterling paid more money to more black employees than anyone. His star player, Chris Paul, and his coach, Doc Rivers, are black, and 76 percent of the league’s players are black.
Maybe Sterling figured that gave him cover to think the way he did, and operate the way he did. This is not about financial retribution, because a $2.5-million fine isn’t going to stress an 80-year-old billionaire. In fact, Sterling could profit handsomely from a sale of the Clippers, whose purchase price reportedly could approach $1 billion. Not bad, considering he bought the team for $12.5 million in 1981.
Although some will shriek, this is not an affront to the First Amendment, which protects speech from government intrusion but doesn’t protect businessmen from repercussions if their hateful words throw their industry into crisis. I suspect Silver already knows he has the votes to force the sale, and if he doesn’t, we need to know exactly who’s against it, and why. When asked if it was likely to pass, Silver replied tersely: “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.”
Magic Johnson is expected to be one of the interested suitors, ironic considering his name played a prominent role in the recording. Sterling — who, Silver said, confirmed that he was the person on the tape — is heard telling girlfriend V. Stiviano, to stop posting pictures of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram. Shortly after the announcement Tuesday, Johnson went on Twitter to echo what many said.
“Commissioner Silver showed great leadership in banning L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life,” Johnson wrote. “Now let’s hope that the other 29 owners do the right thing.”
The right thing would have been for previous commissioner David Stern to thoroughly investigate Sterling’s past despicable acts. The right thing would’ve been for action to be taken before the release of a bizarre tape demanded it.
But make no mistake, the action taken was as severe as allowed under the league’s bylaws. Sterling no longer can attend any NBA games, practices or activities. If the Clippers somehow won it all, he’d have nothing to do with it, mired in exile.
Will this really change anything? Not as much as you hope when these issues arise. But it certainly will change the final years of Sterling’s life. It certainly will remind people that public actions and words don’t always reflect private views.
Maybe the only thing it does is drive apparent racists deeper into the dark, away from the light and recording devices. Stamping out intolerance may be impossible, but kicking out violators is a worthy tool when used properly. In this case, it’s being used exactly as it should, in the strongest way possible.