Clippers' owner Donald Sterling is a bitter, warped racist whose viewpoints rightfully disgust many, but the NBA's decision to ban him for life had as much to do with protecting its bottom line as it did with making a social and political statement.
By Michael Parente
In listening to NBA commissioner Adam Silver deliver his condemnation of Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling Tuesday afternoon, you could hear the passion and disdain in his voice.
This was not your typical mailed-in effort from a politician reading a half-assed apology he didn’t even write himself off a teleprompter. Silver is livid, and rightfully so – there are billions of dollars on the line here – but of all the opinions, theories and takes on this matter, there are a few indisputable facts we need to make clear right off the rip:
The third, and final, point is what you need to understand most. This is your formal introduction to how the real business world works. Half-hearted protests aside, the NBA stood to lose a ton of money if Silver didn’t act swiftly and sternly. With all the pressure from the media, fans, former players such as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, both of whom spoke out this past week, and celebrities from Ice Cube to Bette Midler – yes, even Bette Midler tweeted about this – Sterling had to do something big.
Sponsors were already distancing themselves from the Clippers before Silver’s announcement Tuesday. Imagine the backlash had the new commissioner simply given Sterling a slap on the wrist. Imagine corporate giants such as Nike or Gatorade pulling out of billion-dollar sponsorships. Nike is a huge staple in the urban community. It cannot afford to be joined at the hip with a league that tolerates Sterling’s disturbing, racist rants. It’d have been a financial disaster for a league that had done so much to repair its image and shown remarkable social acceptance this year by being the first league with an openly gay player.
The last thing the new guy on the job wants to do is cost his league billions of dollars in lost sponsorship revenue. That’s bad for business, and bad for his image. This is no different than Bud Selig in his final stand as Major League Baseball commissioner making Alex Rodriguez the guinea pig for steroid use to the point where the league purchased illegal evidence just to build a strong-enough case to justify A-Rod’s 162-game ban. Silver may never be a part of anything this big again as long as he’s commissioner. He needs to make smart business decisions for the league just as much as he needs to make smart business decisions for himself. Starting his new job as the guy who didn’t kick a racist out of the NBA would’ve subjected Silver to a lifetime of scrutiny and criticism no matter how many great things he does down the line.
Sterling isn't even the first owner in professional sports to be suspended by his league. George Steinbrenner was suspended twice by Major League Baseball, the second time for associating with a degenerate gambler whom he hired to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, but never banned for life. The NFL bagged 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo in 1998 for failing to report a felony in an extortion case involving a Louisiana governor. Former Reds owner Marge Schott also got a one-year ban for making racial slurs about blacks and Jews. None of the above were kicked out for life, even if their crimes were as bad -- or, in some cases, worse -- which makes you wonder if Silver's reaction had more to do with the severity of public outrage and the pressure of making an impact in his first year on the job than it did with delivering justice.
By no means is Silver’s punishment and public condemnation of Sterling half-hearted. The anger in his voice Tuesday was as real as it gets, but the NBA has shown it will tolerate questionable behavior as long as the offender doesn’t generate enough public outrage to force a swift, appropriate punishment. It's not alone; if sponsors were threatening to boycott the NFL after Ray Rice was caught on camera dragging his unconscious fiancee through a casino lobby, Roger Goodell would've done something major and made an example of Rice. The punishment must match the public outrage and the potential dollars lost on the back end.
Sterling probably isn't even the biggest racist in the league. Two of the three in-studio panelists on TNT, one of the league’s chief broadcast partners, have made racists statements in the past, sometimes on multiple occasions. Twelve years ago when a reporter asked Shaquille O’Neal if he had anything to say to Chinese center Yao Ming, his response was, “Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so.” During an ESPN interview neary two decades ago, Charles Barkley said, “See, this is why I hate white people,” when asked about groupies in the NBA. He later played it off as a joke taken out of context. Earlier this week, he said Sterling has to go because the NBA is a “black league.” J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver would disagree, but Barkley and O’Neal are great for ratings and bring marketing dollars to the NBA, so no harm, no foul (no pun intended).
Apples and oranges? Perhaps. What's your take on domestic abuse? Jason Kidd pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife in 2001, played another 12 years without a peep and is now the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. Last September, three players were arrested on three consecutive days, each accused of beating their girlfriends. One of them reportedly struck her with an Xbox in front of their two-year-old son. Where’s the outrage? Regardless of what Silver did Tuesday, there are plenty of wife-beaters, drug offenders and other assorted criminals – those who have committed actual crimes – who will still have jobs in the NBA tomorrow morning.
In Sterling’s case, everyone knew he was a racist long before his gold-digging girlfriend/mistress released the tapes to TMZ. This particular case is bigger than the other claims levied against Sterling in the past because 1.) his actual voice can be heard making such derogatory comments and 2.) we now live in the social media era where stories often stay in the news cycle longer than they should thanks to retweets, likes and shares.
A reporter at Tuesday’s press conference asked Silver why the league didn’t act eight years ago when the U.S. Department of Justice sued Sterling for essentially refusing to allow blacks or Hispanics to live in his rental properties because of their race. It was a great question. All Silver could do was say there was no real burden of proof, despite the fact Sterling eventually settled out of court for nearly $3 million. Not having a legal burden of proof didn’t stop the Patriots from releasing Aaron Hernandez and ripping his jersey off the shelves in Foxboro when he was arrested last summer on murder charges. Hernandez still hasn’t had his day in court yet. What stopped the NBA from acting out against Sterling despite his deep-rooted racism being one of the league’s worst-kept secrets?
The difference now is money. With sponsors reneging and dollars falling off the table, the league has to protect its bottom line. Sponsors run the world. They control editorial content at newspapers and websites and they have professional sports leagues by the balls. If money talks, racists walk. In the end, the owners still have to vote on whether or not Sterling should be forced to sell the team. Either way, Silver did something, and while it’s never a bad thing to have one less racist in a position of power, understand it always unequivocally comes down to money, no matter how real the outrage is.
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