Donald Sterling’s racism has been established for years.
In 2014, we finally did something about it.
All it took was TMZ publishing secretly recorded audio of the then-Clippers owner telling his mistress not to bring blacks, including Magic Johnson, to games. Never mind Sterling’s far-more-heinous housing and employment discrimination. We apparently needed to hear Sterling first-hand – though the delayed response sure didn’t dim the outrage.
With the playoffs underway, Sterling took center stage.
Clippers players protested, and sponsors pulled out. Players throughout the league planned a boycott. The NBA had a crisis on its hands thanks to the awful owner nobody wanted to do anything about for years.
Commissioner Adam Silver stepped up, banning Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million.
Of course, that didn’t end the saga.
Sterling sued the NBA to keep his team. He conducted an interview that made him somehow look even worse. Every bit of legal maneuvering brought Sterling back into the headlines, another chance to discuss his misdeeds.
As the summer dragged on, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and the team’s players and sponsors contemplated their options. Could they get out of their contracts? Would they boycott?
Thankfully, Steve Ballmer rode out each legal decision and finally took control the team.
Sterling is gone from the NBA for good, but this incident will affect how the league does business for years.
It already has.
In an environment where owners’ handling of racial issues draws hypersensitive scrutiny, an email by Hawks owner Bruce Levenson – in which he bemoans the lack of white fans in Atlanta’s home arena – led to Levenson voluntarily agreeing to sell his share of the team.
Discovered in the same investigation: Hawks general manager Danny Ferry called Luol Deng an “African” pejoratively, using the descriptor as a synonym for two-faced. Worse for the league, Ferry was summarizing a scouting report from a Cavaliers employee, implicating yet another team for its inability to properly discuss race.
Ferry has taken a leave of absence and apologized, and he remains in exile. Levenson is still around, though his stake is still for sale. It’s fair to wonder whether either would have gotten by with slaps on the wrist if not for Sterling bringing this issue to the forefront.
Even less-notable comments by NBA owners on race – Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying he’d avoid a black person in a hoodie at night and Warriors owner Peter Guber typing “Hoodish” in an email (he says he meant Yiddish) – made national headlines.
That doesn’t happen pre-Sterling scandal.
The ramblings of an old man brought him down. In just a few months, the worst owner in sports was revealed to be worse than most of us considered, and he was summarily discarded. The NBA is flourishing without him, though some members of the league got caught in his wake.
Sterling is not missed, but his legacy is still felt.