Sterling's alleged comments put NBA in quandary

Sterling's alleged comments put NBA in quandary
April 26, 2014, 12:00 pm
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If Sterling cannot be chastened or changed, he can only be punished, and the only people who can truly punish him are his 29 fellow owners.
Ray Ratto

As expected, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver answered what he could about the hot mess that is Donald (Still A Racist?) Sterling, deferred where he could, and left much unsaid about what comes next in this sordid tale.

Then again, what could he do? He could, and did, say the league would attempt to authenticate the tape that Sterling's girlfriend purports to be him chastising her for being seen with black people, including Magic Johnson. He did say he intended to have someone from the league question Sterling and the woman in question, V. Stiviano. He did say Sterling would not attend Sunday's fourth game of the Clippers-Warriors series in Oakland. And he said there are a broad set of sanctions that could be brought to bear if the league was satisifed that the voice was his and that his intent was as stated.

But he couldn't say what the league would do, for a very good reason. He doesn't get to decide that. Sterling's 29 brethren do, and that messy little conference call hasn't yet been held. And even though the taping may actually be illegal (legal experts cite a law that makes surrpetitious taping of a person against the law), the remarks, if proven to be his, reveal Sterling as who we already know him to be.

[RELATED: NBA releases statement about alleged Donald Sterling comments]

In that way, this is not news. It’s just new.

But the demand for Silver to do something, or for the Clipper players and staff to boycott Sunday’s game, is a dead-end. There won't be a boycott, by the choice of the Clipper players themselves. Silver doesn't have the power to do anything unilaterally. If Sterling cannot be chastened or changed, he can only be punished, but he only people who can truly punish him are his 29 fellow owners.

And during his 33 years of ownership, he has displayed this frame of mind often enough for the other 29 to know exactly who and what he is, and have chosen, rightly or wrongly, to do nothing.

Moreover, former commissioner David Stern, who has been lionized as the strongest commissioner in all of sports, never tackled the problem either, because Sterling not only owned the Clippers, but one-30th of Stern.

We will leave you to debate the niceties of the First Amendment, whether this alleged incident constitutes hate speech, or the level of propriety in having Sterling still own a National Basketball Association team. We deal here only with the likelihood of something resulting from this incident, and that should be put at nearly zero.

Problem One: The Clippers players, head coach Doc Rivers and his staff all know Sterling’s position on their skin color from past incidents, and worked for him anyway. Their careers (well, the players’ anyway) have short shelf lives, and they have dreams of winning a championship, and walking off now as an organized protest would almost surely void their contracts and prevent them from striving for that title. They are thus compromised, and would bear the brunt of their boss’ words. 

Problem Two: Silver hasn’t been on the job long enough to amass the level of power and influence among other owners required to take on Sterling. And this would very much be a political act.

Problem Three: The owners have never seen fit to punish him for his prior transgressions, including discriminatory rental practices against Hispanics, blacks, and families with children, even after the Justice Department fined him for those infractions. They would have a hard time making the case that they didn’t know Sterling had these personal stands.

There is precedent for ownership action. Marge Schott, who owned the Cincinnati Reds, was suspended by Major League Baseball in 1996 for remarks seen as sympathetic to Adolf Hitler and eventually was forced to sell the team.

But such acts are rare, and have never been taken in the NBA for any sin other than not having enough money. Sterling is worth nearly $2 billion, and with his history for scorched-earth litigation strategies, one can see where he would engage such tactics if challenged by his fellow owners -- for starters, whether the tape could be admissible as evidence in any court case.

If one had to speculate on a punishment for him should the tape be authenticated, a fine seems the likeliest action for bringing the league into disrepute. But more radical actions like those Schott received, or a player boycott, seem far less likely.

If it helps, though, the Clippers could win the NBA title and still not afford Sterling the praise he craves and would otherwise receive in such circumstances. Sometimes, it’s just a simple matter of soiling one’s bed and then having to sleep in it.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSN Bay Area.