NBA’s punishment fits Donald Sterling’s crime, but why did it get to this?

by | Apr 30, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.”

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner

Donald Sterling allegedly said black people smell and Mexicans only drink and smoke, and Asian women know how to provide sex the right way. You could have read a magazine five years ago that made these claims.

You could have studied legal documents nine years ago charging Sterling with refusing to rent to black tenants.

You could have Googled accusations that Sterling told his Clippers GM, Elgin Baylor, to find “poor black boys from the South” to play for “a white head coach,” or that he once ordered the eviction of an elderly, legally blind woman, referring to her as “one of those black people that stink.”

But with all that, plus a Department of Justice investigation, lawsuits for sexual harassment and sitting courtside next to a mistress despite a public marriage, Sterling and his money were embraced by the NBA for more than 30 years. He was given a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP (and was about to get another). Dallas owner Mark Cuban once told ESPN The Magazine, “I like Donald, he plays by his own rules.”

Then those infamous tapes were leaked Saturday morning.

And suddenly, everyone was calling for Sterling’s head. Cuban blasted him. Other owners acted as if, shockingly, their oldest member had just pulled on an ugly mask.

Really? Now you get religion?

Calling Sterling racist is easy. That’s why so many pundits have done it. Deciding how to punish him is much, much harder. Give Adam Silver credit: The NBA commissioner made a tough, gutsy call that, under the circumstances, feels and looks like the right thing.

He banned Sterling for life, fined him the maximum of $2.5 million, and will try, through an owners vote, to force him to sell the team.

“The league is bigger than any one owner, any one coach, any one player,” Silver said. It is the kind of thing a firm leader says. But to be honest, the new commissioner had little choice. Sterling’s recorded comments about not wanting his mistress to be seen with black people at games were not just abhorrent and backward, they were bad for business. Sponsors pulled out. Players threatened to sit. If Silver let Sterling hang around – even in a peripheral way – how long before that cancer spread to the league itself?

Big day for NBA

So he lanced Sterling like a boil and he did it quickly – mostly because while the NBA, under then-commissioner David Stern, did nothing about this pig of an owner for decades, Sterling’s allegedly angry mistress gave the league something impossible to ignore.

An audiotape.

And in today’s world, that’s the guillotine.

It spread like wildfire, so wild and loud that it drowned out any question of the ethics of making such a tape, selling such a tape or distributing such a tape.

Never mind all that. Silver, only three months on the job, had a grenade in his hands; he could hold it or throw it. And he threw it straight and true. It exploded into the harshest punishment he could level against an owner, and trust me, he studied the NBA’s “constitution” (yes, they have one) to make sure no one, especially the players, could insist he do more.

Forcing an owner to sell the franchise is tough stuff, as strong as it gets. Even Marge Schott didn’t get that, and she praised Hitler, slammed gays and called two of her players her “million-dollar” N-words.

But for those who say: “How can they force an owner to sell his team? It’s not fair! What about the First Amendment?” just remember. The NBA is not a typical business. It’s an exclusive club. They can vote owners in – and they can vote them out.

“I really think today was a big day for the NBA,” veteran player Chauncey Billups told me. “I think what Adam Silver did today is not only gonna start the healing for what happened … but this could leapfrog us into a greater day in the NBA.”

He could be right. With praise coming in from within and outside the league, it feels as if the NBA is actually more united today than it was before this all happened.

But remember, we have not heard from Sterling’s camp. His lawyers are no doubt scrambling, while advising him to lay low until the heat dies down. I doubt he will take this lying down, and even if he is forced to sell, he will reap hundreds of millions, and nobody will be happy about that. When asked what Sterling had to say about this, Silver said: “He has not expressed to me directly any other views.”

I am glad we are not hearing from Sterling. But as a famous British statesman once noted, “you have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” If anyone believes this billionaire, with his awful track record, is today lamenting his racism – as opposed to lamenting his choice in mistresses – you’re crazy.

And if anyone believes that Sterling is the only business owner to say racist things about the people he employs, you don’t know business or owners.

And if every business owner who ever made a prejudiced remark was forced to sell his or her business – bosses of every creed and color – there wouldn’t be enough people left to buy them.

Adam Silver did not convert racism because he silenced its practitioner.

But it’s a step.

Sports not a haven

What’s so awful about Sterling’s comments is that they reinforced an image this country has worked hard to erase: a rich white man treating black workers like trash. True, it’s not quite slavery when you are doling out $73 million a year in payroll. But nobody thinks about money here. It is the stereotype of a white bigot looking down on the very people making him rich. It is disgusting and ultimately depressing. Because every time we feel like we’re making progress in this difficult dance of diversity, a guy like Sterling kicks us back a couple of decades.

But I have been surprised to read pundits saying this Sterling incident somehow proved that sports is not a haven from racism. Whoever thought it was?

From Mike Tyson yelling “You punk white boy!” to John Rocker insulting foreigners to Sergio Garcia saying he’d serve “fried chicken” to Tiger Woods to Riley Cooper yelling a racial slur at a concert, to Hank Aaron to the Texas Western basketball team to Jackie Robinson, since when has sports been a haven? Sports is part of a world in which race is an issue. So on occasion, it will be an issue in sports, too. But remember: Every white person doesn’t feel like Sterling, and every black person doesn’t feel like Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers who made anti-gay comments at the Super Bowl.

Sterling has long been the worst kind of example. The NBA should have crashed on him much earlier. But what his past transgressions didn’t have was Internet access. Audio recordings. And the power of the media to broadcast it everywhere.

Let’s face it. We live in a world where the disgraced walk side by side with the despicable, and the only difference is which one had the misfortune of a tape recorder, video camera or cell phone within earshot. That, too, will be a lesson of this incident. Read what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in TIME magazine this week:

“So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when (Sterling’s) racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars.'”

Let me add that if this woman comes forward to do a “tell-all” interview, we in the media should refuse her. She’s no saint. She took Sterling’s gifts and money until she couldn’t anymore.

Sadly, I doubt my business will listen. We chase these stories, fuel them, and in our own way make money off them, and there’s a hypocrisy that deserves comment.

But for now, this is as good an ending as the league could have hoped for. The NBA erased a current embarrassment. It didn’t erase a past one. What it means for the future, only the future knows.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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