Will Donald Sterling's LA Clippers Feel Major Backlash from Free Agents?

D.J. FosterContributor IApril 28, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 1:  Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling and Rochelle Sterling, attend a game against the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center on April 1, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in the middle of a media firestorm that's burning hotter than ever after his alleged racist comments, and the backlash could place current and prospective players under a lot of undeserved pressure.

If we're basing this on history, that's exactly what will happen. This is not the first time Sterling has acted with extreme racial prejudice, as Bleacher Report's Howard Beck explains here:

Sterling has been sued for racially based housing discrimination, repeatedly. In 2009, he paid a $2.7 million settlement that was termed the largest of its kind.

Sterling has been sued by countless ex-employees, including former general manager Elgin Baylor, who also alleged racial discrimination.

Court records are littered with stories of Sterling's vile remarks on race.

Anyone who has ever worked or played for the Clippers could fill a coffee table book with such tales.

Donald Sterling is an abominable owner and, apparently, an even more abominable person.

Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981.

Donald Sterling has never been disciplined by the NBA.

For years and years, the NBA as a whole has turned a blind eye to Sterling's ways, instead making every employee of his have to stomach or plead ignorance to his long history of discrimination.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 10: Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, looks on as his team plays against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on April 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Sterling did not suddenly become racist scum in the last week, but rather this time, the purported comments were impossible to ignore. This incident was too big to sweep under the rug.

The NBA will likely take unprecedented action as a result. There's speculation as to what that might entail, but many of the suggested solutions place an onus on the players to punish Sterling instead of the league handling it itself:

If NBAPA asks that current Clips players be allowed to become FAs, would NBA be able to allow it? Would cause issues but be some punishment.

— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 27, 2014

That's where things begin to get a little messy. Sterling has been bulletproof in the past because of his power and money, which might lead one to believe that only the players can truly make an impact. Boycott games. Refuse to play until Sterling sells the team. Demand out of contracts. Things of that nature.

But ultimately, the players' union would be doing a disservice to the current members of the Clippers by placing the onus on them to make such decisions.

Members of the Clippers shouldn't have to choose whether they'd like the contracts they signed to be honored. It sets up a situation where those who do choose to retain their financial security and stay in their homes are looked at in a negative light, all because of one man's disgusting comments.

The players have power and with that comes responsibility, yes, but they shouldn't be vilified for not carrying out punishment that needs to come down from the league itself, the people who allowed Sterling to be in this position in the first place.

The full quote from Doc Rivers earlier this afternoon when asked about next season: "Don't know yet. And I'm just gong to leave it at that"

— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) April 28, 2014

Doc Rivers shouldn't have to think about whether he's staying. Neither should Chris Paul or Blake Griffin or J.J. Redick. Sterling is the cancer here, and it's up to the band of owners and league executives who have protected him over the years to remove him from the equation once and for all, however possible.

Will that be a difficult process? Absolutely. Change at the very top always is, and Sterling is a cockroach that's survived through plenty of incidents by waving his money around to make problems go away. 

But until that day comes when Sterling is rightfully ousted, the people who actually run the Clippers are faced with an unenviable task. How can they continue to try to separate the owner from the actual team?

The Clippers already don't bring Sterling along to free-agent meetings, and they already keep him at arm's length from the players whenever possible. They are not ignorant to what a deluded, disgusting man he is. Sterling is kept off the radar at all costs, but that's no longer possible for the time being.

Here's what an anonymous NBA agent told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

This will have a gigantic impact," said an agent representing a flurry of NBA players, requesting anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the story. "Why would anyone want to have their player playing in that environment? You can't succeed in a toxic situation. If the guy at the top of your organization is a piece of scum that everybody hates, you can't win in that culture. It's impossible. They're going to realize that and most players won't go there.

The Clippers can and have done their best not to give Sterling any sort of platform to screw things up, but as the latest allegations show, he'll always find a way to distract.

You can see how this could potentially snowball. The Clippers don't have the cap space to make substantial signings this offseason anyhow, but will veteran free agents chase a ring elsewhere? Will late first-round picks not work out for the Clippers? Here's Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated with his take:

Staples Center will still be packed for Game 5 with Clipper diehards, but swing voters won't support a Sterling enterprise, and neither will one very significant potential free agent. If LeBron James opts out of his contract in Miami after this season, there aren't many teams he'd consider, but the Clippers were one. He admires Rivers. He loves Paul. L.A. offers a massive market with boundless sunshine. But given how strongly James condemned Sterling on Saturday, he seemed to be crossing the Clippers off the list. 

Of course, few players share James' social conscience, and most will still line up to catch passes from Paul, throw lobs to Griffin, and take money from Sterling.

The preferred method of dealing with Sterling as an owner in the past has always been to pretend he doesn't exist. Players can certainly still do that going forward, even if it seems impossible right now.

The punishment handed down from the league and how much it removes Sterling from the Clippers' future will have a lot to do with how plausible it is for the current players to stay put and for future additions to focus on the many tangible benefits the Clippers can offer instead of anything else.

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 26:  Adam Silver the NBA Commissioner talks to the media before the start of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2014 at FedExFo
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The league and commissioner Adam Silver have to recognize the danger in letting Sterling remain in such a big role, though, even if others are unwilling to make personal sacrifices. It's not unreasonable to demand that owners don't be discriminatory, even though there's an uncomfortable history of that in the NBA.

This is where it has to end—not only to send a message and establish a degree of basic human decency, but also to protect every current and future employee from being placed in an unfair situation like members of the Clippers are in now.

This sort of thing can't be tolerated on any level, particularly when nearly every player enters the league through a draft process that offers no free will. The Clippers will have a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, and they can select whomever they want, regardless of the desires of that player. Sterling has benefited from that power many times before.

While we await the league's decision, the Clippers' main focus will be to retain the talent they already have, which under normal circumstances would have never been an issue since their core is locked in for multiple seasons. This should become an issue only if some sort of opt-out option is granted, which seems unlikely. 

It's important to remember where the league's priorities have almost always been on this issue, though. The league has helped Donald Sterling for years, lining his pockets, letting him have a sweetheart arena arrangement and completely avoiding all of his horrible actions and comments.

Now the league has to help its players instead of one of its owners, a concept that was at the heart of the last lockout and one the players' union certainly won't take a loss on this time around. After all, a large corporation such as the NBA doesn't have to look in the mirror and question its values while simply trying to secure employment.

But so as long Sterling remains unscathed and in control, the players will.