NBA imposes lifetime ban on Sterling, $2.5 million fine

What are the wages of racism in the NBA, at least when it can’t be overlooked?  TMZ heard it would be an indefinite suspension and a big fine, but the league had a tougher punishment in mind:

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for making racist remarks to his girlfriend on tape.

He also fined him $2.5 million, and encouraged the NBA Board of Governors to vote to terminate Sterling’s ownership — forcing him to sell the team.

We’ll get to the sale in a moment. What does a lifetime ban look like when applied to an owner? Much the same as a similar one applied to Marge Schott by Major League Baseball a couple of decades ago:

Can the league owners force Sterling to sell? The league’s constitution is secret, so most can only speculate — although one would presume that Silver knows it well enough to make this case. The other owners may not force Sterling to sell, but he may have little choice in any case. The Los Angeles Clippers are having their best season on the court, but they broke records of another kind with corporate sponsors:

All it took was one day for the Los Angeles Clippers to lose all of its corporate sponsors. This must be some kind of record.

More than a dozen companies have ended their relationships with the National Basketball Association team or have suspended activities after owner Donald Sterling was allegedly recorded making racist remarks in a phone conversation. Over the weekend, a recording of his comments went public on TMZ and other sites.

Corona, the beer company thought to be the last major sponsor holding out, said Monday afternoon it would suspend its agreement with the team until the NBA completes its investigation into the issue.

“Like everyone else, Corona is appalled by the comments allegedly made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers,” Corona parent Constellation Brands said in a released statement. “These comments run counter to the type of brand Corona aspires to be.”

State Farm started the exodus. Even Amtrak — whose sponsorship run finished a few weeks ago but had considered re-engaging — says those plans are now derailed. The problem for the league is that two teams play in every game, and it may not just be the Clippers’ sponsors who want to keep their distance from Sterling and Clipper games. This could create a league-wide meltdown, and the NBA needs to act quickly to prevent it.

Nor may players want to sign up for Sterling’s team, and the current roster may look for less-green pastures when their contracts expire. Kavitha Davidson writes at Bloomberg that the invisible hand of the market may end up dictating league action:

For the most part, however, Sterling’s colleagues have remained silent, wary of the precedent that would be set by stripping a fellow owner of his team for non-financial reasons. And, despite the calls for them to boycott the playoffs, it’s unfair to expect the burden of punishing Sterling to fall entirely on the players and coaches, whose life goal has been to win a championship.

The onus then falls to the invisible hand of the market to force Sterling to spare us all of his continued presence in the league. You can’t fault Chris Paul for staying on the team — he has four years and more than $88 million left on his contract. But you can be certain that after the current roster’s deals all expire, the Clippers won’t be able to sign many free agents should Sterling remain the team’s owner. Outside of the Lakers, Los Angeles would become the Chernobyl of the NBA. …

Donald Sterling needs to be hit where it’ll hurt him the most: his wallet. A man who insists he’s not racist while continuing to deny the dignity of black men will stubbornly keep his aging hands gripped around his team until he’s forced to give it up. Fortunately, there are plenty of wealthy people looking to own an NBA team — among them,Magic Johnson himself. To watch him go from not being welcome at Clippers games to occupying the owner’s box would be a fitting resolution to this ugly ordeal.

I mention that as a potentially perfect outcome of poetic justice in my column at The Week today. I also note that we may have made great strides in fighting racism, but the Sterling example shows that it’s not gone altogether:

Peter Wehner wondered in his Commentary column yesterday “how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014.” His answer: “Pretty sick to my stomach.”

Indeed. And one doesn’t have to be black to feel sickened by it, especially coming from someone whose business and social interests have for so long been intertwined with the African-American community. Our hopes for national reconciliation after the centuries-long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow rested on the premise that getting to know each other and live with each other in our communities would eliminate animosity and ignorance. The reason that Sterling’s alleged rant hits a nerve is because it presents at least an anecdotal challenge to that premise.

However, the news in this case isn’t entirely depressing. First, Sterling has no public-sector power. Second, he knew enough to hide his true feelings from his private-sector interests, well enough that he was about to accept an honor from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which has understandably rescinded the invitation. Those embarrassing relatives from so long ago usually lacked the self-realization to hide their retrograde attitudes. “I’m sure there are some Sterling supporters lurking in the shadows,” Bernard Goldberg wrote this week. “But that’s good news too.They’re in the shadows! That’s not always how it was in America.” …

We may not see perfect justice and an end to racism in the hearts of all Americans in our lifetime, but we can certainly hope to see it — and even in this episode take heart in how much we have done in such a short time. But we should not allow political demagoguery to blind us to the fact that we haven’t succeeded yet, and that those who lived through worse times understandably worry that we could relapse.

Instead of pretending that racism doesn’t exist, or pretending that nothing has changed and everything is racism, let’s focus on the real problems that still persist.

It will be interesting to see whether Sterling capitulates to get out of the public eye, or whether he takes the league to court. The league’s owners might not be happy to open up their books and constitution to court scrutiny, so perhaps Sterling can buffalo them into an “indefinite suspension” and limbo status in the end. Given how much Sterling stands to gain in a sale, though, he may be already angling for a quick exit now.

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David Strom 3:31 PM on November 30, 2022