Acting with breathtaking speed and decisiveness, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life on Tuesday, fining the NBA’s longest-standing owner $2.5 million for privately making racist remarks against black people.
The unprecedented decision came less than four days after news broke that a surreptitious audio recording revealed Mr. Sterling telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers games. In the recording, Sterling also chastised the woman for posting Instagram photos of Hall-of-Fame player Magic Johnson.
The recordings caused an immediate and widespread furor during the NBA's lucrative series of playoffs – the most visible time of the year for the league.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” said Commissioner Silver in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, saying the NBA had confirmed that the voice on the recordings was indeed Sterling's. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural, and multiethnic league.”
For the new commissioner, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In February, Silver succeeded David Stern, one of the most successful commissioners in the history of professional sports, helping to shape the NBA into a global phenomenon during his 30-year tenure.
“Wow. Just wow. I did not expect this,” says Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University in New York. “This was really a bold, gutsy, and important move by the new NBA commissioner, and I think he’ll have a lot of support in the public. He’ll certainly have a lot of support from the players, and I think he will have support from many owners, given what has happened.”
Silver, who said this has been a “painful moment for all members of the NBA,” will also urge the NBA’s board of governors to exercise its authority and force a sale of the team, which requires a three-fourths majority vote of NBA owners. “[I] will do everything in my power to ensure that that happens,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference.
The outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, had expressed caution Monday about forcing Sterling out as owner, saying it would be a “very, very slippery slope” to disenfranchise an owner for something said in the privacy of his home.
“What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent,” Mr. Cuban said before Monday’s playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. “There's no place for racism in the NBA, any business I'm associated with. But at the same time, that's a decision I make. I think you've got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It's a very, very slippery slope.”
But after Tuesday’s press conference, Mr. Cuban tweeted, “I agree 100% with Commissioner Silver's findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling.”
Sterling’s comments caused an uproar late last week, sparking protests from players and others. Even President Obama, during a trip to Malaysia, condemned the statements.
By Monday, many of the Clippers' financially critical sponsors had fled. Virgin America, State Farm, Kia Motors America each announced that it would no longer support the team, Reuters reported. CarMax Inc., Red Bull, and AQUAHydrate, the water brand of entertainer P. Diddy, also withdrew their sponsorships.
NBA players rallied around the commissioner, via Twitter, after Tuesday's press conference.
"Commissioner of the @NBA just showed us how he drops the hammer on ignorance," tweeted Jason Collins, the NBA's first and only openly gay player.
"Commissioner Silver thank you for protecting our beautiful and powerful league!! Great leader!!," tweeted two-time champion LeBron James, star of the Miami Heat.
"Way to go, Commissioner Silver! The NBA stands for everybody!" tweeted Magic Johnson, who had been disparaged by Sterling in the recordings.
Silver’s actions Tuesday were swift, severe, and, in many ways, unprecedented. The NBA has banned only four people for life since the 1970s – each of them minor players who had violated the league's substance abuse policies
Major League Baseball banned for life its all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, in 1989 after an extensive investigation found that he had gambled on baseball games, including those he managed. More recently, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from the sport.
Many observers surmised before Tuesday’s categorical ruling that Major League Baseball would provide some precedent for punishing owners. In 1993, the league suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for a year, fining her $25,000 – or the equivalent of at least $40,000 in today’s dollars – for using racial slurs to refer to Jews and blacks.
Baseball also banned Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from day-to-day operation of his team for life in 1990, after he hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on a black player. Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, however.
In 2011, MLB also took over the day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers, its finances in a shambles under the ownership of Frank McCourt. The Dodgers owner vigorously contested the action, but by 2012, Mr. McCourt’s ball club filed for bankruptcy, and he eventually sold the team for a record $2 billion to a consortium that included Magic Johnson.
“The one issue that’s going to be big is, can you force Donald Sterling to sell his team?” says Fordham University's Mr. Conrad. “So there is the potential for lots of litigation on something like this, and who is to say Mr. Sterling, a former litigator himself, is going to take this sitting down.”
The same consortium that includes Magic Johnson and his backers at Guggenheim Partners are reportedly very interested in buying the Clippers, which some analysts are saying could cost $1 billion. The Guggenheim group currently owns the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, one of the league’s flagship teams.
For many around the NBA, a Johnson-led ownership would provide a kind of redemption to the ugly ordeal, not only buttressing black ownership in a league in which more than 3 of 4 players are black, but also making Johnson the front-and-center owner of two championship-caliber sports teams in Los Angeles, where he won five championships as a player.
Currently, there is one black principal owner among the 92 teams in the three major American sports leagues, including the NFL: Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Bobcats.
The NBA commissioner said Sterling’s record $2.5 million fine, the maximum amount allowed by the league’s constitution, will be donated to organizations promoting tolerance. These organizations will be selected by both the NBA and the players association.
“Silver is a brand new commissioner, he has not garnered his own gravitas yet, succeeding someone who was very powerful and successful,” Conrad says. “And I think he could not afford a revolt in the league among the players, among the public, and among the sponsors.”