The Non Sports Fan's Guide to Donald Sterling
You've probably heard about Donald Sterling by now, even if you have no idea who Blake Griffin might be. Sterling, the billionaire owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, has been the biggest story in America after a leaked tape revealed him telling his girlfriend not to publicly associate with black people. But this is a messy and tangled controversy, and we're here to unravel it for you.
So, let's back up: Who is Donald Sterling?
Donald Sterling is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. He is also the longest tenured owner in the NBA, having owned the team since 1981, when they were based in San Diego.
I've gathered that he is... not new to racism.
Right. Given the power of TMZ and Twitter, his latest instance of blatant racism has become his most notorious, but he has a decades-long history of discriminating against minorities, including his own employees.
But this time it was worse?
Well, not really. This current blowback against Sterling comes from a leaked recording in which he pleads with his girlfriend, who is black and Mexican, to not "broadcast that you're associating with black people." This came after his girlfriend had posted photos to Instagram of her with Los Angeles Dodgers lead owner (and NBA legend) Magic Johnson and with current Dodgers star Matt Kemp. He also asked her to not bring any black people to Clippers games.
This is horrible, obviously, both on a broadly human and personal level. But the strength of the controversy partly reflects the lopsided power of electronic media—the audio is more difficult to ignore than Sterling's paper trail, even though that paper trail demonstrates he has done much worse in the past.
Sterling made most of his money in real estate, having owned a number of apartment complexes across Los Angeles. He was, according to multiple lawsuits, an awful and discriminatory landlord. In 2003, he was sued by a number of tenants who accused him of being racially abusive and systematically biased. In sworn testimony, Sterling's employees said that he disliked renting apartments to black people because he said they attracted rodents ("That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean") or to Latinos because he believed they were lazy ("I don't like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house").
In 2006, he was sued by the Justice Department, which alleged that he evicted or would not rent apartments to minorities and families with children. Sterling eventually settled in 2009, agreeing to pay out $2.7 million, which is the largest housing-discrimination settlement ever obtained by the Justice Department.
Is that it?
Many people who have dealt with Sterling have their own anecdotal accounts of his racism. For instance, Elgin Baylor—a basketball legend who is black and who worked as a Clippers executive for 22 years—claimed in his own discrimination lawsuit that Sterling said he envisioned his basketball team as a plantation, with "poor black boys from the South" playing for a white head coach. In 1983, according to journalist Jeff Pearlman, he asked a prospective coach for his thoughts on "Why you think you can coach these niggers."
And the NBA just let him own the team this entire time?
Yes. When the smoke clears from this current incident, attention will likely turn to the NBA and longtime, but now retired, commissioner David Stern, who never applied any sort of pressure whatsoever on Sterling to sell the Clippers.
Wait, why not?
Only Stern knows the answer to that. But, like most sports commissioners, who are paid by each owner to represent their interests collectively, Stern was fiercely protective of all of the league's owners, including Sterling.
That's kinda shitty.
Yep, but the ugly reality of the NBA—and, really, just about any billion-dollar business in the world—is that Sterling is not the only owner with a gross past. This NJ.com column by Dave D'Alessandro illustrates how a number of NBA owners have come into their money, from profiting off subprime loans to fracking.
Can't the NBA just force Sterling to sell the Clippers?
Probably not, no. The NBA's constitution is secret, which is one issue. The other is that—as Deadspin's liberation of a key provision shows—language in that constitution may not leave enough legal wiggle room for the NBA to push Sterling out. An owner can be forced out if he cannot pay the bills. A player can be banned from the NBA for conduct detrimental to the league. But whether the same can happen to an owner is still an open question.
So, what can be done?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver may announce the league's sanctions tomorrow, but a record-setting fine and suspension for Sterling, at the least, is expected at some point. The league may also try to force Sterling out legally, but Sterling could draw that process out for years if he wanted. The most likely route if the NBA wants him gone is to lay out all of the ways it will make his life difficult if he doesn't sell.
One way would be to allow the Clippers' sponsors to flee the team, which they appear to be doing en masse at the moment. They also may do nothing to stem all of the external pressure on Sterling to sell the team.
Another way to look at it is that Sterling bought the Clippers for $12.5 million and could sell them for, if you believe Forbes, $575 million. But even that seems like a low estimate. Either way, at the age of 81, Sterling could cash out an absurdly large return on his investment and recede from the glaring eye of the public.
And where does this leave his players?
The Clippers staged a small and thoughtful protest before their playoff game on Sunday, leaving their team-issued warm-ups in a pile on the court before practicing in plain red shirts. (They also wore black socks during the game.) For now at least, the players likely want to see this controversy blow over so they can focus on their pursuit of the NBA championship, and there aren't many other options left to them at the moment.
That seems muted. Why didn't they just walk out?
The Clippers as a team of basketball players don't want to throw away their chance at a title because their owner happens to be a racist. That would be something like the classic definition of cutting off one's nose in order to spite the face.
But they have been clear that they want Sterling to suffer the most severe punishment the NBA can dole out.
But shouldn't they have known the owner was a racist before they signed with the Clippers?
Well, for one, a number of the team's players had no choice in the matter. Some, like Griffin or starting center DeAndre Jordan, were drafted by the Clippers and haven't yet had the opportunity to become unrestricted free agents, which is the class of NBA player who can move to another team freely. (Jordan, for instance, was a restricted free agent who signed a contract with the Golden State Warriors. But the Clippers agreed to give Jordan the same deal, so he was stuck in L.A.)
Many others were traded there. The Clippers' biggest move last offseason was to acquire starting shooting guard J.J. Redick and bench forward Jared Dudley. Then there is the case of Chris Paul, the Clippers' star point guard and one of the faces of the NBA (you've probably seen his insurance commercial). Paul is the head of the National Basketball Players' Association, making him the obvious leading voice on the issue of Sterling and his players.
But even Paul ended up as a Clipper without asking. In 2011, Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, but Stern, the then-commissioner, vetoed the trade—an unprecedented move, in the name of protecting weaker teams from the Lakers. So a week later, Paul ended up being traded to the Clippers. He re-signed as a free agent with L.A. this past offseason, but even that was slanted towards Sterling and the Clippers, who—as his previous team—had the opportunity to offer Paul significantly more than he could get elsewhere.
He took the $100 million, and who wouldn't?