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Hold your applause for NBA’s handling of Donald Sterling

Apr 30, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT

Adam Silver Adam Silver

Why did the NBA ban Donald Sterling for life?

Because he was found guilty a crime? No. The first amendment protects Sterling’s speech, and nobody has or will even file charges against him.

Because he had racist thoughts? Doubtful. If the NBA truly didn’t want owners who with racist thoughts, it would begin interrogating every owner to ensure nobody else shared Sterling’s worldview.

Because he said racist things? Again, doubtful. If that were the case, the league could more-thoroughly investigate its owners to determine which, if any, spew racist statements in private.

The NBA banned Sterling because he was costing the league money. Period.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m glad he’s out. But don’t celebrate the NBA as a grand arbiter of justice only because capitalism happened to coincide with morality.

Sterling’s comments to V. Stiviano were far from the worst things he’s ever done. They were just the thing that drew the largest public shaming. Sterling’s history is much more consequential:

  • In 1996, Christine Jaksy sued Sterling for sexual harassment while she was employed by him. She testified, according to an ESPN report: “Sterling touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable and asked her to visit friends of his for sex. Sterling also repeatedly ordered her to find massage therapists to service him sexually, telling her, ‘I want someone who will, you know, let me put it in or who [will] suck on it.’”
  • In 2003, the nonprofit Housing Rights Center and 19 of his tenants sued Sterling. A property supervisor testified, according to the ESPN report, Sterling “wanted tenants that fit his image” – meaning no blacks, Mexican-Americans, children or people receiving government housing subsidies. According to the testimony, Sterling refused to make repairs for black tenants, hunted for illegitimate causes of eviction and complained about the odor of his buildings. He allegedly said: “That’s because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean. And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day. … So we have to get them out of here.” When one woman asked for repairs to a flooded and severely broken-down unit, Sterling allegedly said to the property supervisor: “Is she one of those black people that stink? … I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.”
  • In 2003, the ESPN report noted, Sterling employed 74 whites and zero blacks.
  • In 2003, Sterling and his wife sued a woman he had an affair with to recover property he gave her. Apparently, his case revolved around her being a “piece of trash.” In his deposition, Sterling said: “I wouldn’t have a child and certainly not with that piece of trash. Come on. This girl is the lowest form. Wait until the men testify.”
  • In 2006, the Department of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination. The government claim he refused to rent to blacks and people with children. According to the Los Angeles Times, an expert found Sterling rented his Koreatown apartments to far fewer blacks and Hispanics than demographics of the area would predict. Sterling’s settlement ($2.725 million) was the largest ever in such a case.

The audio revealed a troubling and dangerous mentality, but in itself, while repulsive, the mentality didn’t harm anybody. Sterling’s actions harmed people.

His actions force blacks to pay more for housing in neighborhoods with fewer public resources, worse schools and higher crime. His actions propagate sexism. His actions keep women from feeling welcome and advancing in the workplace. His actions keep blacks out of the workplace.

His actions keep wealth and power concentrated to white men.

You can understand why, while they might not have agreed with Sterling’s measures, the NBA’s other owners – a large majority of whom are white men – looked the other way. What Sterling had done didn’t aggrieve them personally.

Until it did.

Sterling’s recorded comments have brought the NBA more bad publicity than arguably any event in history. Sponsors left the Clippers en masse. The president of the United States rebuked Sterling. Players planned to boycott.

Had the league not taken swift and decisive action, Sterling would have cost the league even more money.

That’s what it took to finally kick this menace out of the league – the threat of losing money.

At his press conference yesterday, Silver was repeatedly asked why Sterling’s past misdeeds had gone unpunished. After initially deflecting, Silver gave a revealing answer.

“He’s never been suspended or fined by the league because while there have been well-documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit,” Silver said. “That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention.”

As yesterday proved, the league never needed to wait for Sterling to lose a case. The NBA could have acted – and finally did – whenever it pleased.

Shame on former commissioner David Stern the other NBA owners for waiting so long.

The NBA can’t single-handedly fix racism or end housing discrimination, but it could have obstructed one person who worked counter to the cause of equality. It could have provided a model for others who find themselves doing business with racists.

Silver has received plenty of praise for his handling of the incident, and he deserves it. He rendered an appropriately strong punishment and, while delivering it yesterday, expressed anger toward Sterling with his tone.

I believe Silver’s outrage comes from a real place. What Sterling said is indefensible.

But so is what Sterling has done, and the NBA enabled it for years.

“I like Donald. He plays by his own rules,” Mark Cuban said in 2012, years after Sterling’s racism came to light. Now, Cuban says, “There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position.”

Sterling’s housing practices were just as racist as his comments about Instagram – and far, far, far more harmful. The NBA chose to look the other way.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones wrote about it in 2006, and Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote about it in 2009. The league has no excuse for not seeing the racist in its midst.

Of course, it’s unfair to characterize the NBA as a stable entity capable of robotically adhering to its ethics, however warped those ethics might be. The NBA is nothing but a collection of people.

Since the Department of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination in 2006, 10 new owners – representing a third of the league – have come to power. Perhaps more significantly, Silver did not become commissioner until this year.

Maybe this is the dawn of a new NBA, where its members will be held accountable by their partners for violating reasonable standards of human decency. I deeply hope that’s the case.

“When the board ultimately considers his overall fitness to be an owner in the NBA,” Silver said of Sterling, “they will take into account a lifetime of behavior.”

Now – when it’s popular to do so. Where was the board while Sterling was behaving badly throughout his lifetime as an NBA owner?

More importantly, where will it be when the next owner engages in bad behavior that doesn’t cost the NBA money?

  1. mcmystery76 - Apr 30, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    You people need better reading comprehension skills if you think this article was well-written

    • jimeejohnson - Apr 30, 2014 at 8:15 PM

      Other way around.

  2. hertzy23 - Apr 30, 2014 at 10:44 PM

    this article is trash.

    everything single event you listed was only ALLEGED to have happen. it’s blatantly obvious sterling is a racist from all of it, but stern and silver are attorneys, and know they can’t punish for things that were never fully proven.

    sterling recent comments are what finally allowed the nba to take action.

    this author is pathetic for trying to turn this around on the nba in anyway.

    • urodaddy07 - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:33 PM

      Hmm; while the list of events have never been proven in a court of law, the list points to a pattern of behaviour which should concern his business partners as they are inconsistent with the image of the NBA, an image which facilitates them making a lot of money. These previous alleged indiscretions did not become so widely known as to cause them to lose money, so they did nothing. The point of the article was that the NBA had ample reason prior to this to sanction Sterling. I think the author made this point clearly. Unlike a court of law, the NBA does not require proof of guilt although II am actually quite sure some of these events can be proven, but that is besides the point.

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