Adam Silver, NBA Face Momentous Test in Donald Sterling Deliberation

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterApril 27, 2014

Danny Moloshok/AP Images

The public record strongly suggests that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling is an unabashed bigot, small-minded, mean-spirited, vindictive, parsimonious and petty.

That record was ingrained long before TMZ released an audiotape Saturday that purportedly captured Sterling making racist remarks.

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.

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Keep that in mind as we await a verdict by new commissioner Adam Silver, who on Saturday night pledged a full and swift investigation of the TMZ tape, which includes a voice, said to be Sterling’s, angrily castigating his girlfriend for “associating with black people” and for “taking pictures with minorities,” including Magic Johnson, and posting them to her Instagram account. He asks her not to bring Johnson to Clippers games.

“The audio recording posted by TMZ is truly offensive and disturbing,” Silver said at a press conference in Memphis, “and we intend to get to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.”

This is the first serious test of Silver’s leadership, and his response will be closely scrutinized by players, coaches, fans, media and the league’s corporate partners. But it is not altogether clear that Silver can deliver the only sensible outcome: for Sterling to be an ex-owner.

A trained lawyer, Silver was predictably restrained in his remarks Saturday, citing “due process.” Asked about his options, Silver referred to “broad powers” and “a range of sanctions” at his disposal. Yet those broad powers have never been deployed to push out an owner.

Even if the league determines that the tape is legitimate and undoctored and that the voice is Sterling’s, it is unclear how far the league can go to punish him.

The NBA has fined owners for criticizing referees (Dallas’ Mark Cuban) and for commenting on labor issues (Miami’s Micky Arison). The league has suspended owners for salary-cap violations (Minnesota’s Glen Taylor) and for driving under the influence (the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry Buss).

A fine, no matter how steep, will never be sufficient in this case. A suspension, no matter how lengthy, will ring painfully hollow. A suspension only prevents the owner from attending games.

Sterling deserves to be expelled from the league and barred from ever setting foot again in an NBA arena. But there is no precedent in this area, and it is legally questionable whether the NBA can force an owner to sell.

If the league had that authority, it’s reasonable to think that former Commissioner David Stern would have shoved out Sterling long ago.

Nor is this decision purely in Silver’s hands. There are 29 other owners who have a stake in this—a fraternity of the hyperwealthy, who generally turn a blind eye to one another’s transgressions, lest they be the one in the firing line the next time.

But this case is different. This is a league that is dominated by African Americans, that prides itself on its diversity and its progressivism, that warmly embraced the first openly gay player in league history, Jason Collins, just two months ago.

The NBA in 2014 cannot passively tolerate bigotry in any form, from any member of its extended family. The players themselves made that clear Saturday, filling Twitter timelines and Instagram accounts with their outrage.

“Sterling basically articulated Plantation Politics,” the Pacers’ David West said on Twitter. “Make money off the Bucks/Lay with the Women/No Association in Public good or bad.”

Chris Paul, the Clippers’ star guard and president of the players union, called Sterling’s alleged remarks “a very serious issue which we will address aggressively.”

LeBron James, the game’s biggest star, declared unequivocally, “There's no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There's no room for him.” James challenged Silver and the league “to do something, do something very fast, quickly, before this gets out of hand.”

The players themselves could hasten the process with a boycott, or some other dramatic show of force. The Clippers reportedly considered, and quickly dismissed, that option. But this is not their responsibility, nor should it be.

It’s the NBA—albeit previous owners and previous league officials—who invited Sterling into this exclusive fraternity, who vetted him and approved him and for years willfully ignored his thinly veiled bigotry.

If the tapes are proven authentic and unaltered, if that is indeed Sterling’s voice (and multiple sources who know Sterling say it is), then there can be no ambiguity about the outcome: Sterling must be removed from the NBA landscape, as expeditiously as possible.

There will most certainly be legal risks, but that is nothing compared to the risk of alienating your players and your paying customers, or the risk of appearing insensitive and ineffectual.

How broad are the NBA’s “broad powers?” How extensive is that “range of sanctions?” How committed is the NBA to equality and social justice?

We’re about to find out.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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