For Silver, removing Sterling as Clippers owner easier said than done

Monday April 28th, 2014

The NBA is investigating Clippers owner Donald Sterling for allegedly making racist comments on tape.
Mark J. Terrill/AP

What should the NBA do about Donald Sterling? The answer is easy if you are a columnist, or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or LeBron James, or a fan disgusted by the Clippers owner's racist rant. You can say you are "obviously disgusted" (Jordan), that you will never attend a Clippers game as long as Sterling owns the team (Johnson) or that there is "no room" for Sterling in the NBA (James). You can be proud, knowing you took a stand.

But if you are commissioner Adam Silver, the question gets complicated. People demanding that Silver get rid of Sterling are missing the point. It just isn't easy to force a man to sell a business. Sterling does not work for Silver; Silver works for Sterling and other owners. Sterling owns his team. The NBA does not have a mechanism in place to get rid of a racist owner. As long as Sterling pays his bills, his ownership of the Clippers is inviolate. And within the legal system, Sterling plays hard.

Silver's challenge now: He has to show Sterling the door, but he probably can't force him out. This is like trying to get a man to leave your party when he owns the building.

McCANN: NBA's options in disciplining Sterling

The 80-something Sterling created this firestorm with his idiotic racist comments to his nubile young "girlfriend," V. Stiviano. (The "V," surely, stands for "Valentine," and I certainly hope Sterling and Stiviano can rekindle their romance, though this seems unlikely, since Sterling is married, his family is suing her for embezzling almost $2 million, and she recorded him saying nasty things about people with her racial background and leaked the recording to TMZ. Well, Harry and Sally had a rough start, too.)

Sterling gave Silver his first enormous headache as commissioner. Sterling did not attend Game 4 of the Clippers-Warriors series Sunday, but he hovered over it anyway. The NBA can't let him hang over Tuesday's Game 5, too. That one is in Los Angeles. So you can expect Silver to do something about Sterling in the next two days.

But what will Silver do?

And why did the NBA wait so long to deal with its Sterling problem, when his views were well-known within the league for years?

First question first. The smart money is on a lengthy suspension -- as long as Silver can get away with, and long enough to accomplish a few objectives. Silver has to get Sterling out of the national conversation, as much as he can, during the time of year when the country pays the most attention to the NBA. The Clippers are championship contenders. Silver can't risk the possibility of Sterling's hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.

So you can expect Sterling to be suspended for a year, with the likelihood of extending the suspension at the owners' meetings in July. Doing it that way would give Silver cover if Sterling sues and says Silver is abusing his powers. It would also allow Silver to accomplish another objective: setting up an exit for Sterling.

This is a delicate dance for Silver. But perhaps Silver can get the Board of Governors to change its bylaws to cover situations like these, so that if (when?) Sterling says something racist again, Silver can punish him even more severely. Or he can suspend Sterling for a long time, fine him a large amount and find a buyer to pay a premium price for the Clippers -- a combination of factors that would make it in Sterling's best interest to sell his franchise.

TAYLOR: Silver needs to send clear message

Sterling can decide he wants to own the Clippers at any cost. He can (and probably will) sue. This is why Silver has been measured in his comments so far. Everything he says can and will be used against him later.

And this brings us to Silver's predecessor, David Stern. It is fair to wonder why Stern never punished Sterling for being a bumbling racist jackass, especially because Stern did pretty much anything he wanted for the last few years of his reign. I do think Stern could have done something, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

Two aspects of Stern's personality come into play here. One is that he is a political liberal, and he is proud of it. On a personal level, he has no use for somebody who thinks like Sterling, and he wants people to know that. But the other thing is that Stern is a lawyer. The liberal Stern surely would have loved to kick Sterling out of the owners' club. The lawyer Stern knew it was hard to do.

The much-publicized real-estate lawsuits gave Stern an opening, but they were small openings. Sterling was accused of choosing tenants based on race, and for making horribly racist comments while he ran his real-estate business. But Sterling settled the lawsuits and did not admit wrongdoing.

Mostly, there is this: Sterling may be a racist scoundrel, but he did not run the Clippers like a racist scoundrel. He hired an African-American, Elgin Baylor, as his general manager in 1986. That was extremely progressive move in 1986 --- the next year, when former Dodgers general manager got in trouble for saying blacks may lack "some of the necessities" for certain management jobs, there were only two African-American general managers in the NBA: Baylor and Cleveland's Wayne Embry.

JENKINS: Stern, NBA validated Sterling with Paul trade

Sterling stuck with Baylor through many losing seasons. You could not find another owner in that era who would have let an African-American run his team for as long with so little success. Last year, Sterling fired a white coach, Vinny Del Negro, who was coming off a 56-win season (the most successful in franchise history), so he could hire an African-American, Doc Rivers.

Now, do you see why this is complicated?

Sterling's racism comes from an extremely cynical and small mind. The Los Angeles Times reported that in one lawsuit, Sterling was accused of saying Korean-Americans "will live in whatever conditions he gives them and still pay the rent without complaint." This is how he treated Clippers fans for many years, too.

Sterling's views are still wrong, obviously -- and hurtful, too. But if you were NBA commissioner, how would you punish an owner for privately held beliefs when his public actions in that arena were not just acceptable, but admirable?

Stern probably should have found a way to do something, anyway. The liberal in him wanted to do it. But the lawyer was wary.

Stern never had the opportunity that Silver has now. He didn't have a recording that all of America could hear. The latest evidence against Sterling is overwhelming, and LeBron James is right: Donald Sterling should be out of the NBA. Adam Silver surely knows it. The trick is making it happen.

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