Why Did it Take the NBA So Long to Discipline Donald Sterling?

The NBA has known about his racist views for years. Just ask Elgin Baylor.

AP Photo | Mark J. Terrill

AP Photo | Mark J. Terrill

Yesterday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine on Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For reasons that escape me, many found the decision commendable and that the league had done its part to respond with quick and decisive action against Sterling because of his disgusting (and confusing) racist remarks, which were recorded by his, um, “female friend” V. Stiviano, who, by the way, is a mixed race (black and Mexican) woman of color.

What didn’t happen yesterday was two-fold:

  1. Silver made no announcement about any of Sterling’s peers in the owners association coming to decisive action about Sterling’s continued ownership of the Clippers; and
  2. There was no satisfying answer from the commissioner about why Sterling had been allowed to go on this way for so long.

After his prepared remarks, a reporter asked Silver the following: “Just to be clear, you said when specific evidence was brought to the league you did act. In past cases, has Donald Sterling ever been fined or suspended for racial or offensive remarks, and if not, why not?”

Silver responded: “He’s never been suspended or fined by the league because while there have been well documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit. That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention. When those two litigations were brought, they were followed closely by the league office.”

Like a dog on a bone, the reporter followed up: “Just a follow to that, one of the greatest players of all time, Elgin Baylor, accused Donald Sterling of running a plantation style franchise. Did that not concern you, and why was that not investigated? Despite the fact he lost the case, he has a prominent standing in the league and he said some very serious things.”

And again, Silver came up short: “It concerned us greatly. We followed the litigation closely, and ultimately Elgin Baylor did not prevail in that litigation.”

Caught between a talking point and a hard place, Silver’s assertion that “when specific evidence was brought to the NBA, we acted” went up in smoke with the rest of the hot air that’s been blowing about this whole thing. Sterling, a man whose views about race relations are enough to make one wonder if he was a ghostwriter for Birth of A Nation, is symbolic of America’s problem with race — that it largely goes unchecked until it affects the bottom line.

Of course Silver banned Sterling for life. Did you see how quickly those sponsorship deals went flying off the shelves? Of course there was a $2.5 million fine, with monies being donated to organizations dedicated to anti discrimination and tolerance efforts. The head of the player’s association is the most visible player on the Clippers roster.

Sterling’s peers — including Stiviano — were content to turn a blind eye the facts of who he was as long as prestige and cash were aplenty. It is doubtful — given the pending litigation against her from Rochelle Sterling (the owner’s wife of 50 years) — that Stiviano is awakening into some racial consciousness, and more likely that her lifestyle has been compromised. Revenge is best served over a live mic.

There are no heroes here, except maybe Baylor, who served 22 years as Clippers GM and claimed Sterling had a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” and that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the team. It seems everyone can be bought — even Magic Johnson, the “offending” party in the photo Stiviano took that inspired Sterling’s ire, says he “had a friendship” with Sterling, despite first conceding that “this is not the first time” Sterling has revealed himself to be a racist.

The NBA: Where amazing happens.

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