NBA commissioner bans, fines Clippers owner Donald Sterling, promises to force him to sell. But what has Sterling to lose by fighting a league that has abandoned him?
For a rookie, he seized the moment boldly. Then again, what choice did Adam Silver have — defend the indefensible?
The recorded racial beliefs of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whe admitted to Silver were his, were so offensive on so many levels that new commissioner Adam Silver had to unload his full ordnance Tuesday in order to stave off a player revolt, even if the act of recording and disclosing a private conversation without Sterling’s permission apparently broke California law.
Some say Silver was thrown into a difficult situation. Certainly, the moment was awkward — coming in the middle of compelling playoffs and compromising a team in it — and the subject mortifying for a league that has had a leading reputation for equal opportunity in sports.
But how difficult emotionally could it be to blow up Sterling, a guy who gives dirtbags a bad name?
Silver’s decision to ban Sterling for life and fine him the NBA-maximum $2.5 million was basic. The decision to set in motion throwing him out of the club is more problematic, but nevertheless a step that needed to be done to avert a boycott.
Think about it: On what other topic beyond, say, the fact that sunshine is nice, have owners and players voluntarily reached agreement? Once Silver heard the admission from Sterling that the voice on the recording was his . . . game over. For the moment.
At a packed press conference in New York City, Silver spoke forcefully:
“The central findings of the investigation are that the man whose voice is heard on the recording, and on a second recording from the same conversation — that was released on Sunday — is Mr. Sterling, and that the hateful opinions voiced by that man are those of Mr. Sterling.
“Accordingly, effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life, from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices, he may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”
Regarding the less defined punishment of ousting Sterling as owner, believed to be an unprecedented action in the modern NBA that didn’t involving gambling or financial insolvency, Silver was adamant that he would get the necessary three-quarters vote from his bosses, the owners.
“I fully expect to get the support I need to remove him,” Silver said.
But if Sterling, notoriously litigious in his real estate dealings, decides to fight the action, the NBA could be in for a headache. Besides acting on information that came from an illegal act, a lawyer could probably argue that the league had long been aware of Sterling’s views. And given all the stories already known and others being disclosed, the lawyer is probably right.
Silver attempted to thwart that notion. Answering media questions, he was asked if the decision was based partly on Sterling’s notorious “body of work.”
“In meting out this punishment we did not take into account his past behavior,” he said. “When the board ultimately considers his overall fitness to be an owner in the NBA, they will take into account a lifetime of behavior.”
That’s where it might be tricky — and a mortal embarrassment for Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, who knows everything on the record about Sterling’s previous misdeeds, and probably considerably more.
A vengeful Sterling might want to take to court his one-time protector and ask him under oath, “If I’m being punished for free speech, why was I not punished for actions that you knew to be discriminatory and against the league’s best interests?”
Relatively easy as it was for Silver to destroy Sterling’s Death Star, the villain survives. He might go quietly. He never has before. Nor, according to reporting done on his real-estate business, has he ever sold any of his acquisitions of significant value.
By his actions, Silver held off a threatened player boycott and, for the moment, capped a volcano. But the urgency for action, driven by emotions of the mob, has left Sterling with options. Why? Because he has nothing left to lose. Bigots are used to the world being against them.
Moments before Silver took the podium, longtime TV reporter Jim Gray reported that he had a phone conversation with Sterling, who told him the Clippers are not for sale.
The games go on. So may the fight.