What's at Stake in Adam Silver's Donald Sterling Decision?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 29, 2014

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2010 file photo, Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling watches his team play in Los Angeles. A jury has returned a $17.3 million verdict against Sterling in a lawsuit by an actress who lost most of her belongings in a fire at a West Hollywood apartment building he owns. City News Service says the jury awarded $15 million in punitive damages to Robyn Cohen on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2012, in her breach-of-contract and emotional distress lawsuit. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
Mark J. Terrill

The vile, reprehensible racist comments purportedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to girlfriend V. Stiviano in recorded conversations were appalling, alarming and—assuming that is his voice on the tape—not the least bit surprising.

"If you look at it, I would say it’s probably disappointing to a lot of people, but if you look at what’s kind of gone on in the past, it’s very unfortunate," Brooklyn Nets point guard Shaun Livingston, who spent four seasons with the Clippers, said, via Scott Cacciola and Billy Witz of The New York Times. "But I think it kind of tells the same story as what’s been told, if you pull up the record."

That record was stained by Sterling's racist fingerprints long before he allegedly berated his girlfriend for "broadcast[ing]" her associations with minorities, via TMZ.

Sterling, who accumulated his wealth in real estate, paid $2.725 million to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit in 2009. A similar lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2005, which cost him nearly $5 million in attorney's fees for the plaintiffs alone, per Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times.

"Donald Sterling was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA," former NBA coach and player Paul Westphal told Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News.

That secret is out of the bag, one in which it never should have been allowed in. The league had seen the storms brewing around Sterling before and chose not to act.

For NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Tuesday's press conference (2 p.m. ET) is the chance to do what his predecessor, David Stern, never did: drop the hammer on Sterling.

"Donald Sterling is an abominable owner and, apparently, an even more abominable person," Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote. "Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981. Donald Sterling has never been disciplined by the NBA."

There's no way that pattern can continue. Not with the uproar Sterling's alleged comments have spurred—and with good reason.

"Sterling, in essence, is purported to have said that blacks were not on the same level of humanity as whites," Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times wrote. "That is horrifying."

Silver has been in the information-gathering stage since the report first broke. The commissioner is conducting an investigation into the recording itself, along with the potential sanctions within his power.

The rest of the basketball world hasn't felt the need to reserve its judgments.

"If the reports are true, it's unacceptable," LeBron James said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "It's unacceptable in our league. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, Hispanic, whatever, all across the races. It's unacceptable."

NBA Hall of Famer and Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who typically distances himself from hotbed topics, held no punches in a prepared statement issued by his team, via Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

I look at this from two perspectives – as a current owner and a former player. As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I’m confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly.

As a former player, I’m completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level.

Even President Barack Obama chimed in on the controversy during a press conference in Malaysia, via The Wall Street Journal.

This is bigger than the Clippers, bigger than basketball. This is about social justice, equality of mankind, protecting the rights of workers and ensuring they have a safe, comfortable environment in the workplace.

That can't happen under Sterling's watch. It didn't happen before these awful words leaked, and it won't happen now that his alleged dirty laundry has been aired in a way the league couldn't avoid if it wanted to.

Sterling has yet to confirm that it is in fact his voice on the recordings—he hasn't denied that it is, either. He's been deafeningly silent on the entire matter, while fellow owners have been distancing themselves at every opportunity.

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said that Clippers players should be excused from their current contracts and allowed to become free agents, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. Mark Cuban called the comments "abhorrent" and asked for Silver to make use of the maximum sanctions available to him, via Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News.

Companies have been backing out of Clippers sponsorships by the day. According to CNN Money's Aaron Smith and Chris Isidore, at least 12 companies have ended or suspended their partnerships with the franchise, including CarMax, State Farm, Virgin America, Red Bull and Sprint.

Players have held silent protests across the league. The Clippers and Miami Heat both turned their warm-up shirts inside-out to hide the team logo. The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers wore black socks during their game Sunday night.

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 28:  Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat stands alongside teammates LeBron James #6 and Dwyane Wade #3 while wearing inside out warm up jerseys before playing the Charlotte Bobcats in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals dur
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The players are looking for Silver to make a strong stand, to stop letting Sterling's misdeeds go unchecked.

"They want the maximum of what the constitution and bylaws will allow and we're trying to figure out what that is," Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, working with the National Basketball Players Association, said, via Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles.

They also want to know the details of Sterling's past and why he was never punished then.

"We also believe as the players' association it's our responsibility to find out the history of Mr. Sterling and why sanctions did not occur," Johnson said. "You have a dual and mutual interest in trying to understand the past, in trying to understand somebody of this magnitude and the comments that have been made."

Silver has a massive mess to clean, one that's been soiling the league long before he took over this post. A global audience is waiting on the commissioner's call.

"He (eventually) could suspend Donald Sterling maybe for a year, maybe even two years or even indefinitely," CNN's Rachel Nichols said, via CNN's Steve Almasy. "And the idea and the hope would be that if he made him so uncomfortable ... there would be some way to convince Sterling, it's in your best interest and the interest of everyone else to sell the team."

That's what the league desperately needs: a clean break. There is legal tape to cut through, perhaps court battles to fight at a later date.

Whatever takes the Clippers out of Sterling's hands, whatever gives the organization's employees the chance to work for someone who respects and appreciates them as human beings needs to be done.

Everything is at stake here. The NBA's reputation is linked with that of Sterling as long as his name still remains in the business.

This is supposed to be a progressive league. Whether championing humanitarian causes through the NBA Cares program or celebrating Jason Collins' debut as the first openly gay athlete in one of the four major American professional sports, this is a sport that prides itself on breaking down boundaries.

Sterling's bigotry is the worst kind of boundary, a toxic venom he's been spewing throughout his stay atop the franchise.

The NBA needs to practice what it preaches. It needs to protect its players, to show its fanbase that there are standards of conduct that must be followed regardless how many zeroes are in someone's bank account.

Players, fellow owners and sponsors are avoiding Sterling like the plague. The longer a leech like him hangs around, the closer the league gets toward meeting a similar fate.

No matter how long Silver occupies his post, this may well go down as the defining moment of his tenure—for right or wrong reasons. Sterling has been a problem for years, it's time for this league to find a solution.