Donald Sterling from the game. The Clippers owner made racially
offensive comments recorded during a private conversation, the NBA
NEW YORK — Acting with breathtaking speed and decisiveness, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life on Tuesday, fining the NBA’s longest-standing owner
$2.5 million for privately making racist remarks against black people.
The unprecedented decision came less than four days after news broke that a surreptitious audio recording revealed Sterling telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers games. In the recording, Sterling also chastised the woman for posting Instagram photos of Hall-of-Fame player Magic Johnson. The recordings caused an immediate and widespread furor during the
NBA’s lucrative series of playoffs — the most visible time of the year
for the league.
“The views expressed by Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,”
said Commissioner Silver in a press conference Tuesday afternoon,
saying the NBA had confirmed that the voice on the recordings was
indeed Sterling’s. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens
the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are
contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the
foundation of our diverse, multicultural, and multiethnic league.”
For the new commissioner, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In February,
Silver succeeded David Stern, one of the most successful commissioners
in the history of professional sports, helping to shape the NBA into a
global phenomenon during his 30-year tenure.
“Wow. Just wow. I did not expect this,” says Mark Conrad, director of
the sports business program at Fordham University in New York. “This
was really a bold, gutsy, and important move by the new NBA
commissioner, and I think he’ll have a lot of support in the public.
He’ll certainly have a lot of support from the players, and I think he
will have support from many owners, given what has happened.”
Silver, who said this has been a “painful moment for all members of
the NBA,” will also urge the NBA’s board of governors to exercise its
authority and force a sale of the team, which requires a three-fourths
majority vote of NBA owners. “I will do everything in my power to
ensure that that happens,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference.
The outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, had expressed
caution Monday about forcing Sterling out as owner, saying it would be
a “very, very slippery slope” to disenfranchise an owner for something
said in the privacy of his home.
“What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent,” Cuban said before
Monday’s playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. “There’s no place
for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with. But at the
same time, that’s a decision I make. 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
But after Tuesday’s press conference, Cuban tweeted, “I agree 100%
with Commissioner Silver’s findings and the actions taken against
Sterling’s comments caused an uproar late last week, sparking protests
from players and others. Even President Obama, during a trip to
Malaysia, condemned the statements.
By Monday, many of the Clippers’ financially critical sponsors had
fled. Virgin America, State Farm, Kia Motors America each announced
that it would no longer support the team, Reuters reported. CarMax
Inc., Red Bull, and AQUAHydrate, the water brand of entertainer P.
Diddy, also withdrew their sponsorships.
NBA players rallied around the commissioner, via Twitter, after
Tuesday’s press conference.
“Commissioner of the @NBA just showed us how he drops the hammer on
ignorance,” tweeted Jason Collins, the NBA’s first and only openly gay
“Commissioner Silver thank you for protecting our beautiful and
powerful league!! Great leader!!,” tweeted two-time champion LeBron
James, star of the Miami Heat.
“Way to go, Commissioner Silver! The NBA stands for everybody!”
tweeted Magic Johnson, who had been disparaged by Sterling in the
Silver’s actions Tuesday were swift, severe, and, in many ways,
unprecedented. The NBA has banned only four people for life since the
1970s — each of them minor players who had violated the league’s
substance abuse policies
Major League Baseball banned for life its all-time hits leader, Pete
Rose, in 1989 after an extensive investigation found that he had
gambled on baseball games, including those he managed. More recently,
disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven
Tour de France titles and banned for life from the sport.
Many observers surmised before Tuesday’s categorical ruling that Major
League Baseball would provide some precedent for punishing owners. In
1993, the league suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for a
year, fining her $25,000 — or the equivalent of at least $40,000 in
today’s dollars — for using racial slurs to refer to Jews and blacks.
Baseball also banned Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from day-to-day
operation of his team for life in 1990, after he hired a private
investigator to dig up dirt on a black player. Steinbrenner was
reinstated in 1993, however.
In 2011, MLB also took over the day-to-day operations of the Los
Angeles Dodgers, its finances in a shambles under the ownership of
Frank McCourt. The Dodgers owner vigorously contested the action, but
by 2012, McCourt’s ball club filed for bankruptcy, and he eventually
sold the team for a record $2 billion to a consortium that included
“The one issue that’s going to be big is, can you force Donald
Sterling to sell his team?” says Fordham University’s Conrad. “So
there is the potential for lots of litigation on something like this,
and who is to say Mr. Sterling, a former litigator himself, is going
to take this sitting down.”
The same consortium that includes Magic Johnson and his backers at
Guggenheim Partners are reportedly very interested in buying the
Clippers, which some analysts are saying could cost $1 billion. The
Guggenheim group currently owns the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, one of
the league’s flagship teams.
For many around the NBA, a Johnson-led ownership would provide a kind
of redemption to the ugly ordeal, not only buttressing black ownership
in a league in which more than 3 of 4 players are black, but also
making Johnson the front-and-center owner of two championship-caliber
sports teams in Los Angeles, where he won five championships as a
Currently, there is one black principal owner among the 92 teams in
the three major American sports leagues, including the NFL: Michael
Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Bobcats.
The NBA commissioner said Sterling’s record $2.5 million fine, the
maximum amount allowed by the league’s constitution, will be donated
to organizations promoting tolerance. These organizations will be
selected by both the NBA and the players association. “Silver is a
brand new commissioner, he has not garnered his own gravitas yet,
succeeding someone who was very powerful and successful,” Conrad says.
“And I think he could not afford a revolt in the league among the
players, among the public, and among the sponsors.”