By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON–After Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was sternly denounced for racist comments by a spectrum of individuals, ranging from President Barack Obama to NBA superstar LeBron James, NBA Commissioner Alan Silver on Tuesday fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the NBA for life.
At a news conference Tuesday, Silver said he will ask the NBA Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, an action that would require a three-fourths approval. The fine, the maximum allowed under the NBA’s constitution and bylaws, will be donated to anti-discrimination and tolerance organizations jointly selected by the NBA and the NBA Players Association.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage,” Silver said at the news conference in New York City. “Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic league.
“Accordingly, effective immediately, I am barring Mr. Sterling for life, from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices, he may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”
This was Silver’s first major crisis since succeeding David Stern as commissioner in February. About 75 percent of the players in the NBA are Black.
The firestorm that culminated in Silver placing a lifetime ban on Sterling was touched off Saturday after celebrity website TMZ posted nine minutes of an audio tape of a secretly-recorded conversation between Sterling and Vanessa Stiviano, his mistress who describes herself as a descendant of Mexicans and African Americans. Another website, Deadspin, posted a 15-minute version of the tape on its site.
On the tape, the man identified as Sterling, told his mistress, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?…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…
“I’m just saying, in your lousy f******* Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people…Don’t put him (Magic Johnson) on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
Magic Johnson was not amused.
He took to Twitter to say, “”Cookie and I will never go to a Clippers game again as long as Donald Sterling is the owner. I feel sorry for my friends Coach Doc Rivers and Chris Paul that they have to work for a man that feels that way about African Americans.”
The NBA conducted a three-day investigation to verify the voice on the tape was that of Sterling.
“The central findings of the investigation are that the man whose voice is heard on the recording and on a second recording from the same conversation – that was released on Sunday – is Mr. Sterling, and that the hateful opinions voiced by that man are those of Mr. Sterling,” Commissioner Silver said at the news conference.
On another side of the world, at a press conference Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, President Obama called the comments “incredibly offensive racist statements.” He told reporters, “When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk.”
Sterling’s long-time estranged wife, known as Shelly, also denounced her husband.
“Our family is devastated by the racist comments made by my estranged husband,” she said. “My children and I do not share these despicable view or prejudices.”
In fact, one daughter, Joanna Sterling Miller, told TMZ Sports, “I am devastated and saddened by the cruel and insensitive comments expressed in these audio tapes.”
Her husband, Eric Miller, who works in the team’s front office, told TMZ, “I find the statements and representations made by the Clippers’ team owner to be deplorable and disgusting. There is no room in sports or society in general, for racism.”
He added, “If these comments should happen to cost me my employment with the team, it is but a small price to pay to speak out against ignorance and racism.”
Meanwhile, Clippers sponsors have begun abandoning the team. Mercedes-Benz USA, used car dealership chain CarMax, Virgin America airline and the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, Calif. announced that they are terminating their sponsorships of the Clippers.
At least 10 others – Kia Motors, Red Bull energy drink, Diageo (the liquor company whose brands include Johnny Walker and Smirnoff), the Commerce Hotel and Casino in Los Angeles, Lumber Liquidators, Yokohama Tire, LoanMart, Carona, AQUAhydrate and Sprint – said they are suspending their advertising and sponsorship programs with the team.
Another sponsor, State Farm Insurance, issued a more nuanced public comment before the NBA announced its decision.
“The remarks attributed to the Clippers’ owner are offensive,” it said in a statement. “While those involved sort out the facts, we will be taking a pause in our relationship with the organization. We are monitoring the situation and we’ll continually assess our options.”
State Farm’s decision to take a “pause” will not impact its “Born to Assist” ad campaign that features Clippers point guard Chris Paul portraying himself and an imaginary twin brother, Cliff Paul. The voiceover says, “There is a little-known fact that few NBA fans know: all-star point guard Chris Paul has a long-lost identical twin brother, Cliff Paul, who is a State Farm agent. Clearly, they were both born to assist.”
On Monday, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial called for Sterling’s permanent removal from the game.
“Sterling’s 18th century views have no place in modern-day America or in our sports – and thus, in the NBA or as part of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise,” he said. “Commissioner Silver has a responsibility to the NBA, its players, fans, coaches, owners and partners to do what is in the best interest of the league to protect its brand and thus remove anyone or anything that is not aligned with what it represents. This includes placing a lifetime ban from the NBA on Donald Sterling.”
Speaking on “Meet the Press,” Al Sharpton said, “Well, I think that clearly the National Basketball Association must suspend him, or must say that, ‘We’re going to remove any kind of imprimatur we have on this team if he’s the owner.’ You cannot have someone own an NBA team in this country and have these kind of attitudes”
He later told TMZ, “No one should be allowed to own a team if they have in fact engaged in this kind of racial language.”
Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele praised the action taken against Donald Sterling and said, “Now is the time to have a new, longer, broader and more in-depth conversation about race.”
Interim NAACP President Lorraine Miller, who appeared on “Meet the Press” with Sharpton, said the Los Angeles chapter had withdrawn its plan to present Sterling with a second Lifetime Achievement Award from the organization.
Jesse Jackson, appearing on ESPN, called on fans to boycott the Clippers. He said, “If we are just going from picking cotton balls to picking basketballs, then we are not making progress. It’s about dignity.”
In a statement issued Sunday, Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan said, “I’m completely disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views.”
He added, “There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level.”
Jordan’s criticism was noteworthy because of his reluctance to become involved in any controversy for fear of harming the Jordan brand. For example, when asked why he would not endorse Harvey Gantt, an African American, in his 1990 North Carolina Senate race against ultra-conservative Republican incumbent Jesse Helms, Jordan replied, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Also noteworthy were the comments of Kobe Bryant, who criticized the Miami Heat for taking up the cause of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Bryant tweeted, “He should not continue owning the clippers.” Bryant also tweeted, “I couldn’t play for him.”
Unlike Jordan in his prime or Kobe Bryant, the Miami Heat’s LeBron James has not shied away from controversy. Shortly after the tapes were made public Saturday, James said, “There’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA.”
Encircled by controversy, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers and his team, privately seething with anger, have continued to play for an NBA title after winning their division championship this year for the first time in team history. To register their dismay, the team wore black socks and turned their warm-up jackets inside out to hide the team logo Sunday before losing Game 4 of the Western Conference playoffs to the Warriors, tying the series 2-2.
On Monday night other players followed suit, with the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trailblazers also wearing black socks and the Miami Heat practicing with their shirts inside out and throwing their warm-up gear in the middle of the court.
Some owners appeared ready to take serious actions against Sterling before Tuesday’s news conference but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said that although Sterling’s comments were abhorrent, “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.” He tweeted after the announcement that he supported the commissioner’s decision.
Players felt they were on solid ground and were prepared to boycott the NBA if Silver had not acted decisively, a Players Association official said Tuesday.
Rivers said Sterling had reached out to him, but he refused to speak with him.
He told reporters Monday, “When you’re around all these people (in the organization), you realize that they’re just as upset and embarrassed. That’s the thing I got from them. They didn’t sign on for this, but they’re part of this.”