BY Art Thiel 01:36PM 04/28/2014

Thiel: Sterling’s ignorance should stay in light

Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s punishment shouldn’t include hiding him. As President Obama said, the best thing to do is let the racially ignorant talk.

The NBA wants to hide Donald Sterling. He needs to be kept in the light. / Wiki Commons

The easy thing for the NBA to do when it announces Tuesday its response to ignorant remarks attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, is to suspend him. The hard thing is to let him sit there, which is what I wish the NBA had the wisdom to do. It won’t. Sterling is such a foul, reckless and polarizing figure that he appears to be costing his team games. A sports league can’t have that.

More practically, I hope the NBA doesn’t attempt to make him sell. Not because it may be a legally dubious action. But because America needs the reminder about how some people really think. Doubt that?

Of all organizations, the NAACP was about to bestow a lifetime achievement award to Sterling at a May celebration. For a SECOND time.

As Richard Sherman found out when he was branded a thug, and worse, by anonymous social media commenters following his NFC Championship post-game rant, and as Japanese national Hiroshi Yamauchi found out when his 1992 offer to purchase the Mariners became international news, racial ignorance remains a strong undercurrent in American life despite what many would prefer to believe.

Banning ignorant people from their public profiles changes nothing; it only forces the danger into the shadows, out of our sights, and thus out of our minds. In darkness, ignorance festers and mutates.

A man who knows a little about the topic, President Obama, said it best over the weekend, when he addressed Sterling’s alleged remarks during a tour of Asian countries:

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t have to do anything,” he said, “you just let them talk.”

Obama wasn’t creating policy with the remark. He was speaking from what he knows from his own life, and the lives of countless others. The only way bigotry loses influence is from its own dead weight. Bigotry thrives in darkness and dies in the light.

Just as I wanted Marge Schott to remain owner of the Cincinnati Reds after her pro-Nazi remarks came to light, I would like to see Sterling roast in the spotlight of his own making.

Let him deal one-on-one with his own employees, front-office staffers as well as his coach, Doc Rivers, and the players. Let him go to a restaurant with his MAW (model/actress/whatever) and see what happens before he reaches the private dining room. Let him conduct business meetings with people who can’t risk being seen with him.

Sterling has already attempted to distance himself from himself. He has claimed, through the team’s PR people, that the voice on the recording given the slime-raking TMZ website may not be his, and if it is, the recording could have been altered to demonize him. After all, the girlfriend who made the recording, known so far as V. Stiviano, is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly.

Even if the recording is legit, she appears to have broken the law in obtaining and sharing it without his permission. As attorney and sports law expert Michael McCann wrote for Sports Illustrated:

The NBA, as a private business, has no subpoena power to force TMZ or any other entity to turn it over. TMZ may be reluctant to share the original recording, especially if it was obtained on the condition that it would not be shared. TMZ may also be reluctant to share the recording because the recording itself could be unlawful. Under California penal law, it is a crime to intentionally record a confidential conversation without the consent of the person or persons being recorded. This type of eavesdropping also empowers victims of the unlawful recording to sue for money damages.

If there are questions about the evidence and the legality of the distribution, the NBA may have an excuse that would force it into doing a smart thing — let Sterling fend for himself.

But that form of cultural jiu-jitsu rarely plays well in American public life, where the demand is for instant retribution and resolution so that, in this case, we may continue the playing of games and the making of money.

Regardless of legalities, the audio remarks have reaped a whirlwind of condemnations and compromised a franchise. When players are altering uniforms and playing poorly, as the Clippers did Sunday in a 117-98 loss to Golden State in Oakland, then the NBA has more than a PR problem. It has a competitive legitimacy problem.

As far as legitimacy problems, please, Sonics fans, no written reminders of the 1993 playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns that looked to be fixed, as did the purloining of the entire franchise by Clay Bennett in 2008. That’s 10,000 words for another time.

Where history plays a relevant part in this story is Sterling’s long, well-known litany of bigotry and ignorance during the the time of Commissioner David Stern. Ever since Sterling bought the San Diego Clippers in 1981, Sterling has been an embarrassment to the league on multiple fronts, as this account shows from

Much in the way of an ill-mannered child, Sterling was enabled by weak parenting from Stern. Sterling’s behavior was allowed to go unchecked until he fell into a trap from which Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, must extricate not just the Clippers but the entire league, as well as the legacy of Stern, Silver’s 19-year mentor. Silver has booked a press conference for 11 a.m. PT Tuesday, presumably with shovel in hand.

League-ordered sanctions are almost inevitable, but aren’t going to modify Sterling’s behavior or attitude. Actions will be taken to appease players, fans and media, none of which will hurt Sterling.

Suspension from operating the club? It will only improve the team and its value, and keep him away from direct public scorn that he deserves. Force him to sell? Oh, please, B’rer Fox, don’t throw me in the brier patch and make me accept $700 million for my foolishness at age 81.

But the NBA can’t be seen by an offended public as insensitive to ignorance, so it will be forced to act now, in the middle of a great round of playoff action, of which the Clippers are a part, instead of years ago when it could have uncoupled from Sterling when few were paying attention.

Sterling likely will be allowed to distance himself from himself, instead of living with himself in public, which has been, belatedly but unavoidably, alerted to his moral bankruptcy. Sterling needs the light of day to make him shrivel.

Just let the man talk.


  • RadioGuy

    Now that there is zero doubt among Sterling’s players what kind of man they work for, I’ll be interested in watching whether they tank their series against Golden State (and I wouldn’t blame them). The Oakland A’s won in part because they were united in their dislike for Charles Finley, one of the few things that crew could agree on without taking a trip to Fist City. The difference here is that while Finley was a meddlesome cheapskate, Sterling is a breathtakingly soulless shard of humanity without any visible redemptive qualities.

    The thing is, none of this is a departure from character (or lack thereof) for Don Sterling, but he’s made sure to buy off enough well-placed people and organizations who’ve known all along what he is to turn down the heat…I have little doubt that many of those decrying Sterling the loudest right now have quietly been accepting his checks for years.

  • Kirkland

    My instinct is to rip the team from him, have the NBA sell it, and not give him any of the $; unfortunately, contract law seems to disallow that, and he’d sue anyway.

    Re: education efforts, MLS has a great “Don’t Cross The Line” PSA on discrimination. Not sure if the NBA has suspensions for uttering slurs, like how some MLS players got three games for gay slurs last year?

    And the inevitable local angle: I’ll take the incompetence of the Mariners’ brain trust over blatant racism any day.

    • art thiel

      Nothing the NBA does will change Sterling. It’s all about the public perception. THe MLS PSA is a good message for young people. It;’s It’s too late for owners.

  • Trygvesture

    Well, yeah, exposure can reveal the depth of racists attitudes, culturally. But to ‘let it ride’ until bankruptcy ( okay, tortured metaphore) doesn’t speak to nor address the need for actively demonstrated intolerance of hate speech and racism that civil society requires. To condone, or at least tolerate the likes and actions of Sterling in secret –which seems to be the other undisputed fact of the NBA– is still a far different thing than providing the public and obvious tacit approval that would be implied by giving him rein to continue his racist behavior, to leave it unchallenged by the organization commonly seen as having ethical oversight responsibility ( whether by explicit directive or not).

    Sure, he’ll make money and be happy in his briar patch. Sure he’ll be unrepentant. Sure he’ll still get away with whatever behavior he wants by virtue of buying the rights to his behavior, crime-boss style. But to censure him publicly is to publicly censure racism– and it’s important to do so. It speaks truth to power, in a way, and validates the charges that Baylor brought and were formerly discredited. That alone is a worthy outcome.

    He is exposed now. His attitudes are exposed. The continued existence of racism is once again exposed. Further exposure of his racism accomplishes far less than censure at this point.

    • art thiel

      I get the purpose of a public punishment, because the NBA can’t be seen to have done nothing against racism. Then again, he’s been a pig for his entire tenure, and NBA has done nothing.

      It’s easy to do fine-and-suspension, because the by-laws provide them. To do something original and compelling is much harder, but would leave a lasting impression if the condemnation were profoundly righteous. But the ownership brotherhood won’t stand for it.

      • Trygvesture

        It will be interesting now: Will the likely legal challenge from Sterling be contested by the league at the risk of discovery (depositions and investigatory material) hanging out whatever dirty racist laundry the owners’–and Stern et al– may have for all to see?
        Now, painted into their own corner, they may be exposed, whether they defend the actions of the NBA against Sterling and risk being deposed and quoted, or if they choose not to and appear to let the issue slide. Surely there will be a resultant consciousness raising no matter how it goes– the racist tone of the brotherhood to whatever degree it may be and may be seen will be part of a national discussion. That will shine a light, illuminate an issue that’s been shielded and, hopefully, embolden others to speak out.
        Sterling is too expensive to be tolerated by the brotherhood, but he’ll be expensive in PR terms to get disentangled from as well. Sponsors hate this stuff. Owners hate losing sponsors. They are in a pickle now.

  • PokeyPuffy

    i feel a warm sense of schadenfreude for Stern who along with Sterling must spend his end days dealing with this mess. He was nothing but a charlitain who prized loyalty, power and money above all else. Sterling is a perfect portrait of what this value system brings….

    • art thiel

      Stern covered for Sterling on multiple occasions. But any commissioner is an employee of the owners, so the owners aren’t going to give a commish unlimited powers, lest one of their private conversations gets recorded.

  • Matt712

    I couldn’t agree more, Art.

    So, come Tuesday we’re going to witness one soulless, morally bereft entity hand down some concocted public lashing onto another one? I don’t think the world is yet ready for a Game of Thrones spinoff.

    • art thiel

      Suspension and fine. All of which are affordable for Sterling.

  • jafabian

    Sterling should have been ousted from the league a long time ago just for putting the NBA in a bad light by putting out a bad product. Only five winning seasons in 30 years is a bad precedent, and only two of them had 50+ wins. In a smaller market he’d probably have sold the team by now due to lack of support but in LA they’re large enough and the Lakers sucessful enough to where he can weather that. But it’s bad when the Clippers overall are synonymous with losers.

    The Marge Schott comparison is spot on. I’m guessing Sterling will step away from day-to-day operations and since she’s speaking on behalf of the club his wife will take over. I heard that she’s the one who possibly recorded Sterling without his knowledge? Possible power play to take over the team? Not a fan of listening in on other people’s conversations without their knowledge. It’s like being a peeping tom. In this situation Sterling reminds me of the grandparent or older family member with ignorant attitudes from their era and don’t care to change with the times.

    I agree with the Marge Schott comparison and having Sterling stay on. It would be perfect to see the Clippers win the championship and that he couldn’t be a part of it. It’s odd that a successful lawyer like him would be so poor in the language he used but again, he didn’t know he was being recorded. I realy don’t see Stern….oops, I mean Silver forcing him out and I certainly don’t see the league letting anyone acquire the team to move them. However if they were to move I’d rather see them move back into British Columbia, just so we can root for the Victoria Clippers!

    • art thiel

      As I said above, the commissioner is the valet for the owners, so they’re not going to equip him with police-like powers. Stripping him of the club is extremely unlikely for illegally obtained information.

      Don’t know about the wife’s role. The league has temporarily operated teams before, so that could be possible here.

  • notaboomer

    the other 29 owners should go to the game in their respective team’s official nba logo t-shirts, walk to center court, take off the shirts, and toss them into a pile, light a $100 bill, toss it onto the pile, each light a cigar from the fire, and then turn to face the cameras and all give the finger at the same time. and then tip off for game 5. at least it would be honest.

  • notaboomer

    well what a surprise, the league is banishing sterling and all the rich players think that’s fine and dandy. it’s always about the money.

  • David Sternling

    Wow, a “Lifetime Ban.” Let’s hope it lasts at least as long as Steinbrenner’s, which was all of 18 months.

    Somewhere Pete Rose is going, “Yeah, right.”