Comparing and Contrasting the Donald Sterling and Marge Schott Sagas, Aftermath

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 30, 2014

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In the last few days, the National Basketball Association has had to deal with outrage stemming from racists remarks directly from the mouth of one of its owners.

Which, for Major League Baseball, is a narrative that's unfortunately all too familiar.

As much as many of us would prefer to forget it, it's frankly impossible to look at the mess involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and not remember what baseball went through in the 1990s with the late Marge Schott when she was owner of the Cincinnati Reds.

Like with Sterling, racism was what landed Schott in hot water. And just as the Sterling controversy resulted in him being punished by the NBA—league commissioner Adam Silver suspended Sterling for life on Tuesday—the Schott controversy resulted in her being punished by MLB.

That's the short version, anyway. The long version is as follows. 

The Remarks

Provided that you A) have a pulse, B) don't live in a cave and C) haven't just returned from a long sabbatical to a desert island somewhere, you've probably heard the Sterling recording already.

But what the heck, we'll recap anyway.

On April 25, TMZ obtained and released an audio recording of a conversation alleged to have taken place on April 9 between Sterling and his apparent girlfriend/mistress, V. Stiviano. It supposedly was in response to Stiviano posting a picture of her with NBA legend (and current Los Angeles Dodgers boss) Magic Johnson on Instagram.

A harmless gesture by any normal set of standards. But for Sterling, it was an excuse to outline how he felt about those associated with him having the nerve to associate themselves with people of color.

The most memorable quote? Probably this one: "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that...and not to bring them to my games." 

That Sterling said this to a woman with African-American and Mexican lineage is as hard to ignore as it is ironic. As for the content itself, the word "damning" sums it up well.

And as it turned out, there was more.

One of the highlights of the extended recording obtained by Deadspin is Sterling saying that it's not him who's racist, but rather society and that people like him and Stiviano "have to live within that culture."

Then there was the part where Stiviano pressed Sterling on how he could have such views and also own a team loaded with black players, to which he responded: "I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?"

In so many words: It's OK because I own them—a bit of a classic sentiment, and not in a good way.

So then, how does all of this compare to what Schott had to say?

Buckle up, because things aren't about to get any less ugly.


It was a wrongful-firing suit brought on by former Reds executive Tim Sabo in 1992 that got Schott in trouble. As John Erardi of The Cincinnati Enquirer recalled in 1998, court documents alleged that Schott operated the club's front office with a racial bias and that she was openly bigoted. 

For example, she allegedly referred to Reds stars Eric Davis and Dave Parker, both African-American, as her "million-dollar n----r." She also apparently opined that "sneaky g-----n Jews are all alike."

Per the Associated Press (via The New York Times), Schott apologized shortly after these remarks went public, saying in a statement that she never meant to offend anyone. But in a subsequent interview with Ira Berkow of The New York Times, she was unable to hide her true colors.

Though she denied calling Davis and Parker her "million-dollar n----r," she admitted to having used the N-word. She justified that, in part, by claiming she said it "only kiddingly."

Oh, and as for the swastika'd Nazi armband referenced in the documents from the Sabo case, Schott downplayed that as a mere gift she had gotten from a worker at one of her Cincinnati car dealerships. 

This excuse might have been more convincing if Schott didn't openly sympathize with Adolf Hitler by saying this: "Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far."

There would be more to come. In May 1994, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated noted that Schott went from racist to homophobic by referring to men who wear earrings as "fruits." In 1996, she was up to her old tricks, justifying the early years of the Hitler regime by telling ESPN (via the Associated Press and The New York Times): "Everything you read, when he came in he was good. They built tremendous highways and got all the factories going. He went nuts, he went berserk. I think his own generals tried to kill him, didn't they?"

All told, one thing that's hard to ignore is how both Schott and Sterling landed in hot water due to remarks that were made in private, which is no small detail. 

Public remarks would have been bad enough, sure. But since it was behind closed doors, where people are unguarded, neither Schott nor Sterling ever had a chance of selling people on the idea they had misrepresented themselves—try as they might.

Now, you might note that, unlike Schott, Sterling at least managed to avoid making things worse for himself by keeping his mouth shut. But as Deadspin pointed out, Sterling's history of racism and bigotry extends way past his conversation with Stiviano. The initial Schott controversy didn't end up being an isolated incident. The Sterling controversy never was from the beginning.

To conclude, I'm not going to bother arguing that Sterling's remarks were worse than Schott's or vice versa. Let's just agree to call it even on the principle that good, decent people don't have views like theirs. Good, decent people know better.

We can say this, though: Things are less equal regarding the reactions to the two controversies.

The Reactions

When the Schott controversy arose in '92, the outrage came from both inside and outside the business.

Regarding the latter, Berkow noted that Hall of Fame slugger and Atlanta Braves senior vice president Hank Aaron lobbied for MLB to suspend Schott. Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O'Malley put the burden on Schott, suggesting she resign as Cincinnati's CEO.

Elsewhere, Jewish activist Abraham H. Foxman joined Aaron in calling for Schott to be suspended. Per The New York Times, African-American poet Nikki Giovanni took the O'Malley stance by practically telling Schott to her face that it was time for her to step down.

As for the writers, Berkow coined a lasting nickname for Schott when he referred to her as the "Big Red Headache." Times colleague Murray Chass was more direct, referring to Schott as an "embarrassment" who had to be punished.

So yes, there was outrage—plenty of it.

We can, however, look back and note that things were different back then.

ESPN.com's Mike Bass wrote just last month that Schott didn't have to deal with the outrage amplifier that is social media and how she existed in a society that, generally speaking, was less prone to call out insensitive people.

In light of these things, there was an unmistakable sense of curiosity about what would happen if a Schott-like controversy were to arise in today's world.

Well, now we know.

Ringo H.W. Chiu

When word of the Sterling recording came out, it took three and a half seconds for the Twitter army to take up arms—for those looking for a taste, B/R's Stephen Babb put together a fine collection of the top reactions.

It was also on Twitter that we eventually heard from Magic Johnson:

As well as Lakers star Kobe Bryant:

Other basketball luminaries chimed in as well.

Via ESPN.com, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James said, "There's no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA—there is no room for him."

Via Nick Schwartz of USA Today, former Chicago Bulls superstar and current Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan put out a statement that said the owner in him was "disgusted" by Sterling's "sickening and offensive views" and that the former player in him was "completely outraged." 

Even president Barack Obama chimed in, remarking via Julie Pace of The Associated Press that Sterling had made "incredibly offensive racist statements" and that he had shamed himself in doing so.

Elsewhere, there were not only columns—from people such as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, J.A. Adande of ESPN.com, Dan Levy of B/R—but damning reflections on Sterling's past.

There was the Deadspin collection of other notable instances of Sterling being a racist and/or a generally despicable human being, for one. Another worth nothing is SB Nation's Bomani Jones doing a fine job of revealing the absurdity of how everyone was just now turning on Sterling:

The firestorm that enveloped Sterling in the wake of his remarks going public is about as hot as they come—and rightfully so.

Though Jones brought up a legit gripe in talking about everyone being late to the outrage party, I'm inclined to play the "better late than never" card. An opportunity was presented for the masses to send a message that views like Sterling's must not be tolerated, and that message was sent with several pages of exclamation marks.

Relatively speaking, the firestorm surrounding Schott in the '90s pales in comparison. 

Still, it's a good thing there was a firestorm of any kind. Otherwise, there's a realistic chance Sterling wouldn't have been punished.

The Punishments

According to Murray Chass of The New York Times, two factors had a shot to save Schott from punishment. An apology Schott made to black and Jewish groups actually seemed to leave everyone satisfied, for starters, but then there was the reality that MLB was lacking in leadership at the time.

The Schott controversy arose just weeks after Fay Vincent had stepped down as MLB's commissioner. The owners wanted him gone, with one of their gripes being that Vincent was too liberal with the "best interests of baseball" clause in the major-league agreement. One notable example of its use was the banning of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for life in 1990. 

In all, a complicated picture given that it was this clause that would have to be used to punish Schott if baseball saw fit.

Still, the league wasn't downright incapable of action. As chairman of baseball's executive council, future commissioner Bud Selig technically had the authority to act as commissioner. Chass said he wouldn't do anything without consulting the council—another way of saying he wouldn't act on his ownbut at least the door was open for Schott to be punished if there was enough pressure to do so.

And despite the incident happening in an era predating social media, public outcry did mount to a point where something had to be done. 


On Dec. 1, 1992, Chass reported that "the escalating outcry" over Schott's remarks had forced Selig into arranging a conference call to discuss the matter. A day later, an investigation was launched

The word came down in February 1993: Schott was suspended from the day-to-day operation of the Reds for one year and fined $25,000.

This wasn't the end of Schott's troubles. A couple of years after making her return to the Reds in November '93, she made those remarks about Hitler and found herself staring at possible discipline once again.

And this time, a simple year-long suspension wasn't going to cut it. With the threat of a second suspension hanging over her, Schott agreed in June 1996 that she should give up her role as managing general partner of the Reds.

"We made very clear that we believed it was in everyone's best interest for her to relinquish her day-to-day title and responsibility," said Selig, via Chass. "Clearly, if she wouldn't do that, she would face a suspension."

This was a big step along the path toward Schott eventually selling the Reds. Helping to keep the ball rolling was Schott's legal trouble in 1997, when it was revealed that she had falsified the sales of 57 cars from one of her dealerships.

Finally, in 1998, it was reported that Schott was leaning toward selling her share of the Reds. Not long after, she chose to step down as controlling owner of the Reds. Then, her ban was extended while she sought out a buyer for the Reds, and a buyer was finally found in April 1999.

All thanks to pressure from her contemporaries.

"They made it clear to her that she had to sell," Vincent recently told the Los Angeles Times' Houston Mitchell. "I wasn't involved, but my recollection is that they pushed her out."

Here's the abridged version of Schott's exit from baseball: controversy, punishment, controversy, punishment, more controversy, pressure, deal—a complicated and ugly road if there ever was one.

Kathy Willens

One thing we can say about the Sterling situation is that the movement from controversy to punishment was a lot quicker. Unlike what happened with Schott, there was really no time for doubt to emerge as to whether some sort of punishment would even happen.

No, the only real question had to do with what the punishment would be.

Which points us to a difference between the two sagas: Whereas the lack of a commissioner made the first Schott controversy a test for baseball, the Sterling controversy was a test for one man: 

Adam Silver.

It was less than three months ago, on Feb. 1, that Silver took the reins from David Stern. His first response to the Sterling mess was predictable, as he gathered everyone for a press conference to announce that an investigation was being launched.

The next step? Good question.

As B/R's Howard Beck wrote, it was unclear how far Silver could go in punishing Sterling. The NBA had fined and suspended owners before, but not as a result of a Schott-like controversy. Silver's first big test, as such, was an unprecedented one.

On top of all this was the reality that Silver wasn't going up against a lightweight. As Wojnarowski noted, Stern avoided tangling with Sterling because he feared going up against him in court. Sterling is a lawyer, after all, and one with a taste for litigation to boot.

But Silver had options at his disposal. Just as Schott was subject to punishment under the "best interests of baseball" clause of baseball's agreement, ESPN.com's Lester Munson noted that the NBA's constitution allows for owners to be suspended for conduct "prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball." Same thing, really.

There was also what Wojnarowski termed "the nuclear option." Under the NBA's bylaws, Silver could summon the owners for a vote to kick Sterling out of the league.

As things turned out, Silver went one route and is now hoping for the other.

As we noted way back in the beginning, Silver opted for a lifetime ban for Sterling (plus a $2.5 million fine). With Sterling out of the picture, Silver hopes the next step is for the owners to agree to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

"I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him," Silver said, via the AP.

Silver is going to need 75 percent of the owners to side with him, which means 22 of 29. Given Sterling's history and the severity of this latest controversy, that's likely an attainable number.

Wojnarowski spoke to a source who confirmed as much: "Adam has the votes—all of them, I believe."

Thus, Sterling's exit from basketball could very well be much quicker and less complicated than Schott's departure from baseball. Whereas it took two controversies, two bans, some criminal activity on her part and pressure from the owners to get her to go willingly, it looks like Sterling's exit could merely consist of one suspension and fine, a vote and then the door.

Such would be the end of the second regrettable controversy involving racism and an owner of a major professional sports team that we've seen in the last 20-odd years.

And hopefully the last. Forever.

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