Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 1, 2014

The Power Of Money, The Power Of Words

Amidst the tidal wave of praise for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s swift and comprehensive punishment of Donald Sterling earlier this week and the expected ensuing defenestration of the Los Angeles Clippers owner by his fellows, it is impossible to ignore the fact that much of this tale is driven by neither high-minded principle nor a commitment to equality, but by money.

In the long weekend between last Friday’s posting on celebrity news website TMZ of a recording on which a male who sounds a lot like Sterling repeatedly chastises a female for associating with African-Americans, and Tuesday’s press conference at which Silver announced his lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine against the Clippers owner, Sterling’s back story was widely reported. But every bit as troubling as the sordid tale of repeated bad behavior towards non-whites is the obvious reality that it was a tale that had to be known to both league officials and his fellow NBA owners.

In 2006 the Justice Department sued Sterling for housing discrimination at his apartment complexes. The legal paperwork cited comments by Sterling that Hispanics “smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” and that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” Three years later 11-time NBA All-Star and long-time Clippers executive Elgin Baylor filed an employment suit against Sterling, alleging both race and age discrimination. In his paperwork Baylor quoted Sterling telling him that “I’m offering a lot of money for a poor black kid,” during contract negotiations with Danny Manning.

While these lawsuits may not have been front page news much beyond greater Los Angeles, they were obviously known beyond the hallways of southern California apartment complexes or the Baylor family’s living room. In particular NBA league officials and all of the other owners were surely aware of Sterling’s legal difficulties. Of course a man worth nearly $2 billion can afford to spend at will on lawyers. Sterling eventually turned aside Baylor’s lawsuit; and more than three years after it was filed, the housing discrimination case was settled without a finding.

These results allowed the NBA to hide behind the tiniest possible fig leaf by pointing out that the Clippers owner was never found guilty. But the settlement of the housing case did relieve Sterling of more than $2.7 million in fines and nearly $5 million in attorney’s fees and costs awarded to the plaintiffs, along with a rebuke from the trial judge condemning Sterling’s “scorched earth legal tactics.” That’s a fair amount of smoke that the other NBA billionaires decided did not indicate any possibility of a fire.

It’s not just his fellow owners or the NBA leadership who let money do the talking for years when it came to the Clippers and their owner. In a league in which 75% of the players are African-American, there have obviously been many forwards, guards and centers willing to remain oblivious to Sterling’s record as long as his checks kept clearing the bank. Just last summer the enormously talented head coach Doc Rivers was lured to Los Angeles with a three-year $21 million contract. Rivers wisely passed on an opportunity to meet with Sterling over the weekend, denying the owner a chance for a photo opportunity with an African-American face. Having had his home burned to the ground in what was believed to be a racially motivated crime in 1997; Rivers has been widely praised for his leadership of the team this week. But he has also admitted that he didn’t consider Sterling’s reputation before signing on, saying “Really didn’t know a lot about that, to be honest; and probably should have, I guess.”

But what money can protect it can also destroy, and there was plenty of money driving Commissioner Silver’s swift decision on a punishment that went beyond what many were expecting. On Monday Virgin America and CarMax terminated their sponsorship deals with Sterling’s team, and State Farm Insurance announced it was “taking a pause” in its relationship with the organization. Meanwhile NBA stars present and past, from LeBron James to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in on the importance of the league taking action. On the job only four months and with his league’s playoffs moving into high gear, the last thing Silver wanted was to see corporate sponsors rushing out the door or the players that produce the product the public pays to see organizing a work action.

So on Tuesday Commissioner Silver strode to the podium in New York and handed down the lifetime ban and maximum fine permitted by the league’s constitution. On Thursday a panel of 10 owners agreed to move quickly on Silver’s request that Sterling be forced to sell the team. Of course, whether that occurs quickly or at all will depend on how Sterling chooses to respond. Should he become litigious the matter could drag on for years; but having paid all of $12.5 million to buy the Clippers 33 years ago, maybe he’ll opt to take the money, pay his capital gains tax bill, and find a new girlfriend.

Cynics will say that this week’s lead story in the NBA is all about money. Without question it played a huge role, both in protecting Donald Sterling for many years and in his sudden undoing. Those same cynics suggest that had the recording not come to light Sterling could have continued his bad behavior indefinitely. Perhaps, but their assertion misses a more important point, because the recording did surface. Once it became public the reaction to what was on it sparked a movement fueled by something far more powerful than money. That movement gathered momentum almost by the hour, as it moved swiftly to a certain end. By the time Commissioner Silver held his press conference the power of what was on the recording was controlling even how money’s power was arrayed. Money insulated Sterling and money was a factor in bringing him low, but in the end this is really a story about the power of words.


  1. Well, his reputation is forever ruined, and he’ll be forced to sell the team. But you have to wonder, with the Golden Parachute he’s about to receive from the sale of the team, and the fact that he’s already 80-years old, can we assume he really gives a damn what people think of him? Taking his team away from him is the right move, but it’s quite possible that in private, he’ll just shrug his shoulders and count his money.

    • You could well be right Bill. There’s been no sign of the obligatory apologetic news conference that one would expect if he harbored any thoughts of trying to hold on. Perhaps he’s too busy with his tax lawyers trying to figure out if there’s any way to avoid a big capital gains hit. But in any event, all one can say is “good riddance.” As always, thanks for reading. Mike

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