As I’ve followed the Donald Sterling story over the past several days, I kept asking myself, what do I want to contribute to the coverage that is already out there. Every major sports and news outlet has put out an endless stream of information about what Sterling should do, what the players and coaches should do, what the league should do and so forth. Then yesterday, it was capped off by Adam Silver’s decision to ban him from all Clippers related activities, fine him the maximum $2.5 million, and begin the process of having the owners vote to force him to sell the team. The reaction to Silver’s decision has been received positively by every party involved, with the exception I’d imagine of Sterling, and it sets a strong tone for what to expect from him throughout his future tenure as Commissioner.
So, now that we’re here, let’s take a look at a couple of things that almost happened and could still happen.
Player Walkout: There were several stories yesterday that discussed potential plans among players across multiple teams, not just the Clippers, to walk out on last night’s playoff games if Silver did not take strong enough action. This would have been the single most impactful thing that could have occurred – everything else that happened previously, with turning practice shirts inside-out, dumping warm-up suits at midcourt, and even rumors of playing in logo-less jerseys would pale in comparison to players leaving the court. And there is precedence for this type of action if you look back to the first televised All-Star game in 1964, where the players threatened not to play if the league did not recognize the players’ union. The players ultimately control the product more than anyone else, and they seemed willing to use their power to drive change. Even though it wasn’t necessary, that willingness is a strong sign to all owners that they will stand up and fight for what they believe is right.
Not Without a Fight: Based on Donald Sterling’s history, it’s a fairly safe assumption that he will use every legal recourse he has to fight this decision, and that fight could escalate dramatically if in fact the owners vote to force him to sell. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sterling figures out a way for a judge to serve a temporary injunction that actually allows him back to the Clippers for some period of time (please note, I have no legal background – I am just hypothesizing a bit, so my terminology might be off). If that happens, we could be right back to square one with the players and coaches looking to take their own action. Either way, we are probably looking at years of legal battles before Donald Sterling actually sells the team.
The Vote: Adam Silver made it clear that the process to vote Sterling out as owner would move forward, and that would require at least 75% of the other owners to agree. I’ve seen others say that Silver must already have confidence that he’ll get the required votes based on his comments yesterday, and that makes sense. However I’ve also read that in the past, owners historically try to protect one another, especially those that have owned teams together for a long time (i.e. the “old boys club”). Now this situation is clearly not typical and no one will come out and defend Sterling, but if that vote is by private ballot, it only takes a handful of “buddies” to keep it from passing. The best thing that would ensure the outcome Silver wants is a public, on-the-record vote, but I’m not sure what the NBA constitution dictates in this situation. And like I mentioned above, that result would surely trigger another legal battle. Only in sports can someone who owns a business lose his business based on a vote of other business owners. Sterling would surely challenge this exception, unless someone comes to the table with an offer he cannot pass up. This takes me to my next note…
Sterling’s Wallet: The truth is that no matter what happens, Donald Sterling really doesn’t lose in the literal sense of the word. He’s still an incredibly wealthy individual who will either win a probable legal battle to maintain ownership of an NBA franchise or make billions when he’s forced to sell it. This is one situation where no matter how inappropriate and racist his statements are, it will have little impact on him financially. And the actions taken in part by other NBA stakeholders, from the players to the coaches to Commissioner Silver, have done an admirable job protecting the NBA as a whole from much damage.
The Fans: Being a Clippers fan has to be a very awkward proposition for Sterling’s remaining tenure as owner. Usually the owner of a team has little impact on a fan’s decision of who to root for, but this is definitely an exception. Clippers fans still want to see the players perform well. They still want to experience rooting for a championship team, but for some of them, the idea of their time and money supporting a potentially racist owner is a huge conflict. In fact, Nate Silver recently showed that the Clippers have one of the most diverse fan bases in the NBA, which really drives this conflict home. Ultimately, the folks who are responsible for marketing and selling the team will have very different jobs if he keeps the team vs. if he is forced to sell. They are very fortunate that the team is doing well and has incredibly popular stars. They need to do all they can to keep the focus on the court – the best thing that could happen, in my opinion, is for the team to make a deep run in the playoffs, even though that will keep the Sterling story in focus longer. Fans can rally around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Doc Rivers, and as long as Sterling really is kept away from the team, they can showcase great basketball and get through this.