By Arturo R. García
They might be loathe to admit it, but good cheer likely wasn’t the only reason so many people connected to the NBA were so quick to declare Tuesday morning the final chapter in Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s relationship with the league. The problem is, the league’s own mechanics all but ensure that won’t be the case. And that’s just on paper.
While it took just four days for the publication of Sterling’s racist and misogynist remarks toward girlfriend V. Stiviano to be met with a lifetime ban, a $2.5 million fine, and the league publicly indicating it’s willing to turf Sterling out as soon as possible, ESPN’s Jemele Hill correctly pointed out that it was, or should have been, years in the making.
“I didn’t look at Donald Sterling like a first-time offender,” Hill said shortly after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s roundly-praised verdict. “I looked at him as a habitual offender. It’s just that we caught it on audio. Again, this is a man who, since 2003, settled sexual-harassment suits, racial discrimination [suits]. Anyone who takes the time to read some of those things that are in those reports, you understand that this was far deeper than what happened here.”
Indeed, Sterling has already had to pay nearly $8 million in settlements for discriminatory housing practices in two separate lawsuits. And even in a lawsuit he won against former general manager Elgin Baylor, court records show Sterling feeling comfortable enough in his privilege to tell Baylor that he “would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor Black players,” and literally brought guests into his team’s locker room to ogle “those beautiful black bodies” during their post-game showers.
“He did his job,” Hill said of Silver. “This is what he’s supposed to do. [Sterling] is somebody who has been a black mark on the league for a long time.”
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar expressed a similar frustration in Time Magazine:
What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?
He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?
Even if one agrees with the position that the league was “better off” waiting to attempt to torpedo Sterling until it could do so without getting its hands too dirty — the publication of the remarks stoked the public uproar more efficiently than Silver or predecessor David Stern, both lawyers by trade, could have done — Sterling undoubtedly undermined his own argument on Tuesday by not immediately offering Sterling’s past up as the league’s own Exhibit A for booting him.
This becomes crucial because, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann reported, the league constitution is neither available for public review nor (allegedly) equipped with the kind of “morals clause” many other types of businesses have at their disposal:
The conditions are focused on financial matters, such as an owner unable to meet payroll or an owner implicated in financial impropriety. None of the listed conditions, SI.com is told, apply directly to the type of conduct committed by Sterling. That said, article 13 also contains a more general requirement of ethical conduct in business dealings and contracts. Sterling’s comments could be deemed unethical. They have also clearly damaged labor relations between the league and players, as players have gone so far as to consider boycotting NBA games. Also, sponsors have dropped deals with the Clippers. Should the NBA’s owners vote to expel Sterling, the general requirement language would likely be cited as supplying the main legal justification.
The lack of the “morals clause” is likely why Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban initially called the idea of forcing Sterling out a “slippery slope”; if the league’s Board of Governors was that interested in policing its fraternity of sporting oligarchs, after all, Silver would have been granted the authority to fine a reputed billionaire more than $2.5 million.
Part of the league’s strategy thus far in the court of public opinion has been to Other Sterling, painting him as the One Bad Apple in the league “family.” Silver might be disconcerted to know that people like Bill O’Reilly and his ilk have also seized upon Sterling for the same reason, arguing that the Clippers owner is the type of outlier that disproves the existences of white privilege or institutional racism. That’s what racism really is, the argument will go, often citing people like Sterling as a point of demarcation through which to denigrate activists as “race hustlers.”
But as McCann writes, Silver might also be leery of what could happen if Sterling decides to sue the league in response. Even if Sterling lost the suit, it might be worth it to him to use it as a way to expose other owners’ dirty laundry:
If Sterling is ousted because of racism, he would likely demand that evidence showing that other owners and officials are also racist be shared. He would use such information to portray his penalty as unwarranted and contradicted by the conduct of those who ousted him. Sterling might request emails and other records from owners and officials that depict them in a negative light. Sterling has owned the Clippers for 33 years, which suggests that he has had many interactions — including private conversations with league officials and owners. If there are other owners who are racist or bigoted, it stands to reason Sterling knows who they are.
The league might also be roped into that scenario if Sterling decides to file suit against Stiviano for illegally recording his rants without his consent. Though she has denied being the person responsible for its release, it’s easy to imagine Sterling’s legal team attempting to both impugn Stiviano’s character — she’s already facing a lawsuit from Sterling’s extranged wife — while painting Sterling as no better or worse than the other members of his rich boys’ club. (In fact, while Abdul-Jabbar seems to suggest that it’s Stiviano who is in line for perks like a book deal and Dancing With The Stars stints, she probably stands to lose the most in legal proceedings out of anybody involved in the story.)
Looking beyond both the basketball court and the court system, however, the temptation will be great for a lot of people to follow the league’s signal and call everything hunky-dory now that Bad Guy Sterling is on his way out. The NBA would definitely not like you to remember or question its efforts to not present players who look like “thugs.” Silver’s remarks on Tuesday also barely saved his young administration from being remembered for a mass boycott by players during nationally-televised (and highly lucrative) playoff games.
But as Brittney Cooper writes in Salon, it’s still dangerous to look past the cases of Sterling and Cliven Bundy in the wake of the Supreme Court’s hit-job on affirmative action:
What Sterling’s and Bundy’s views demonstrate is the extent to which retrograde racial attitudes are alive and well among white men with money, power and control over the livelihoods of black people. And what the Supreme Court’s abdication of responsibility suggests is that the government has no responsibility to remedy the discrimination that clearly still exists in institutions that are run largely by white men who belong to the same generation and school of thought as Bundy and Sterling.
Bundy and Sterling represent a kind of past-in-present form of racism, one that contemporary generations of white youth have largely rejected in favor of a kind of multiracial, post-racial worldview. If we would only wait on time, this view goes, Bundy, Sterling and the likes of them will die off.
Indeed, as Cooper, Abdul-Jabbar and The New Yorker’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault — to name just a few — warn us, such complacency is naive, if not outright dangerous.
“Having people think before they speak is only a partial victory if racism just perpetuates itself in silence,” Hunter-Gault observes. Indeed, while we’d probably all like to believe that Donald Sterling will represent a bump in the road, the mechanics of the culture in which he thrived ensure that won’t be the case, either.