NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in his first major test on the job, banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million — the maximum penalty allowed — in response to a recording confirmed to be of Sterling making multiple racist remarks.
At Tuesday afternoon’s press conference, Silver also said that he would “urge” the league’s board of governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, which would require a three-quarters vote of the NBA’s owners. Silver’s strong statement was viewed as impressive by observers and his “outrage” seemed to be genuine, making up for a tepid response Saturday evening, when Sterling’s comments were first reported, and earning him leadership kudos in his first year taking over for David Stern.
But in the wake of Silver’s actions, it should be noted that this sordid saga isn’t over just yet.
It shouldn’t be assumed that Sterling, who is known for battling in court — from sexual-harassment and housing-discrimination lawsuits in his private life to the unsuccessful case filed against him by NBA Hall of Famer and former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor — will simply acquiesce to the league’s wishes. Silver himself said that while Sterling owned up to having made the remarks on the recording, he didn’t make any other statement to the commissioner, which should indicate he wasn’t remorseful.
Prospective buyers are reportedly already lining up to purchase the Clippers, once one of the NBA’s sorriest franchises, but now a marquee team, meaning that Sterling will profit from the sale of the team — estimates have the Clippers being worth over $1 billion — and although his name has been dragged through the mud (not anything new for him) and he’ll no longer have the prestige of ownership, the unavoidable consequence is that Sterling will benefit financially. The fine Silver levied against him (again, the most Sterling could be penalized monetarily) was already just a drop in the bucket, but will now be even further offset.
Still, Silver acted decisively, something he had to not just because of his personal feelings on the matter and the NBA’s reputation for diversity and inclusion, but the simple fact that with sponsors pulling out of their agreements with the Clippers and the possibility ofapi fan protest prior to the team’s Game 5 first-round home playoff matchup Tuesday night against the Warriors — not to mention the specter of a player boycott, as players’ association vice president Roger Mason indicated in the union’s press conference — meant that the league had no choice. The praise that’s coming his way is deserved, as Silver acquitted himself well in the process.
On this specific issue, the same can’t be said for his predecessor, David Stern, who just a few months ago was being revered for his spectacular tenure at the helm of the NBA. Stern was responsible for several great developments as commissioner, but turning a blind eye toward Sterling, who has a long history of bad behavior, isn’t one of them.
It was never a secret around the league that Sterling had these types of views, it just had never been caught on tape before. For the majority of his time owning the Clippers, they were a non-competitive team, something that changed after Stern rescinded a trade the Lakers made for Chris Paul and shipped the All-Star point guard to their Staples Center co-tenant, pairing him with Blake Griffin to make them an instant contender.
It was just bad timing that now that the Clippers are being run like a franchise with designs on winning — with an African-American head coach and general manager in Doc Rivers, a former Clippers player under Sterling himself — that Sterling brought the league negative attention while his team is in the midst of the playoffs. It didn’t help that he referenced the legendary Magic Johnson — the former Laker great, coincidentally, could end up owning the Clippers — by name in the conversation with his ex-mistress, but as appalled, angry or sickened anyone even remotely familiar with Sterling could claim to be by his comments, “stunned,” as Silver and even Rivers claimed to be by them, is a bit disingenuous.
Maybe the fact that he was caught on tape was shocking, but with his history as a slumlord discriminating against minority tenants in Los Angeles, as a philanderer harassing women and as a winning defendant in the lawsuit Baylor filed against him, no one — from Rivers and Paul, also the union president, to the NBA’s owners — can claim complete ignorance. It bears the question why Stern didn’t take action against Sterling, or at least force him to clean up his act, in the past, when it might not have caused such a furor, instead of letting it lapse until this sad moment.
It’s expected that Silver will get approval from league ownership to force a sale of the Clippers, as everyone involved understands that it would be bad for the NBA’s brand to not do so, even if Sterling attempts to drag out the process in court. But as inclusive as the NBA is — witness the acceptance of Jason Collins after coming out as the league’s first openly-gay player — it’s a reminder that in today’s society, even one that includes a league dominated by black players, in a country with a black president, racism still exists.
Whether it’s subtle or overt, coming from fans, the media or a team owner, this incident proves there’s still a long way to go, both literally and figuratively.