Apr 29 2014, 4:17pm CDT | by Forbes
Strip away the context and what the NBA did to Donald Sterling on Tuesday seems unfair. Sterling said some horrible things to his girlfriend in a private conversation. She taped it. It wound up on TMZ and Deadspin. And now NBA commissioner Adam Silver has banned Sterling for life, and other owners will probably force him to sell the team. That seems like a huge overreaction. If you could lose a team for saying horrible things in a private conversation, there might be only six people in America who could own an NBA team, all nuns.
But there is a steaming heap of context to what the NBA did, and Donald Sterling is standing in it.
The NBA’s punishment is for Sterling’s words and deeds. But there’s a huge amount of evidence that Sterling punished people simply for who they are. In 2009, he paid a $2.7 million settlement — the largest one of its kind — in a case that charged Sterling with trying to keep black residents and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned in Los Angeles. That followed a similar case in 2005 where the settlement was confidential, but the payout was even higher — $4.9 million in legal fees alone.
(A reporter rightly asked about Sterling’s history at Silver’s press conference. Silver replied that the NBA did nothing to Sterling after those cases because he wasn’t officially found in the wrong. Which goes to show that it pays to settle.)
But the bigger context, to me, is how Sterling benefited all these years from the way the NBA works. NBA owners — and the owners in most pro sports leagues — have advantages other CEOs can only dream of. They have no real competition in the U.S. when it comes to professional basketball. They’ve divided up their territory geographically. They have this beautiful labor-restricting thing called the college draft, where teams take turns picking the best college players and the players have no say in the matter. And they have trades. Trades! You can take one or two of your people and send them to another team for one or two of theirs. This would be laughed out of any court in the country, except in sports, where we pretend as if there’s no other way it could happen.
All that creates a system where Donald Sterling, who by most accounts is terrible as a team owner as well as a human being, can buy the Clippers for $12 million in 1981 and have it be worth at least $575 million now.
It’s an exclusive club. But one of the problems with an exclusive club is that it tends to exclude. And now that Sterling has embarrassed the NBA, most of the other owners will line up to get rid of him. From what Silver said Tuesday, three-quarters of the other owners would have to agree to force Sterling to sell. And based on the confidence in Silver’s voice, he has already lined up the votes.
This whole sad story is full of contradictions. The man who doesn’t seem to like black people owns a team in a league dominated by black players. (I have a couple of theories on that.) The owner who finally has a good team, after years of awful ones, has sabotaged his team’s best shot at the title. We’re talking about race and mistresses and lawsuits in the midst of the best first round the NBA playoffs has ever had.
In one sense, this all happened so fast — from a TMZ post Saturday morning to Adam Silver laying down the law Tuesday afternoon. But Sterling built the case against himself. He used his power against the weak, and now the power is aligned against him. He had all the advantages of being in the club, and now the club will turn its back. He spent wrenching the karma wheel in his direction. Once he let go, it spun all the way back. For once, you can say this in a case involving Donald Sterling: That seems fair.
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