The NBA banned for life Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling yesterday, one of the boldest moves in the history of professional sports. There is no question that the decision by new commissioner Adam Silver was the correct move — the only move. But save your applause, please.
Sterling didn’t become a racist when tapes surfaced a few days ago of him demanding that his girlfriend not bring African-Americans to Clippers games. By every reasonable measure, Sterling has been a racist from the time he purchased the Clippers 33 years ago. Why did it take so long for a major American sport to rid itself of such a contemptible man? That’s the question fans should be asking today.
The case against Donald Sterling has been building from 1983 – two years after he purchased the Clippers – when he met with Rollie Massimino at the height of the Villanova coach’s success and asked him: “What makes you think you can coach these n——?” Massimino has made no secret of his disgust at that remark, nor of his abrupt departure from that job interview.
Even more outrageous was the $2.7-million settlement Sterling made in 2009 on a housing-discrimination charge stemming from allegations that he refused to rent to African-Americans at his Los Angeles housing complexes – the largest such payment in American history. According to the public record of that hearing, Sterling claimed that the blacks in his buildings “smell; they’re not clean.”
That same year, NBA legend Elgin Baylor filed a wrongful termination and discrimination suit against Sterling for the “Southern plantation-type structure” the owner had created in the team’s front office. Baylor ultimately lost a jury verdict on his lawsuit, but his litany of racial allegations – also documented publicly – was impossible to ignore.
Somehow, however, that is exactly what the NBA did. As case after case, incident after incident, piled up against Sterling, everybody who could have done something did nothing. For example, David Stern, who was commissioner for most of Sterling’s tenure, chose to run a league built on the skills of blacks while protecting an owner whose biases were blatantly apparent. Why?
It’s painfully simple, really. Sterling’s offensive feelings didn’t actually hurt business until the public heard his voice spouting his racial hatred on tape last week. Once there was no way to rationalize his irrational behavior, the NBA finally acted with a vengeance. When a dozen advertisers pulled their support from Clippers games last weekend, Sterling’s fate was finally sealed.
Adam Silver deserves none of the blame for the past transgressions – he has been commissioner for only the last three months – and most of the credit for finally taking an action that was long overdue, against a man who represents the very worst in sports. Silver is the only real winner here.
The list of losers, on the other hand, is a long one. Sterling has lost his team. The NBA has lost it reputation for racial equality. And the fans – if they have learned anything from this – have lost faith in the people entrusted with running our sports with fairness and honor.