NBA (finally) acts on Sterling reputation

In the case of Donald Sterling v. Human Decency, I suppose a contrarian could find some wiggle room to argue on behalf of the real estate magnate/slumlord and L.A. Clippers owner/hot mess.

For those who haven’t been following along, Sterling — or a man alleged to be him — was recently caught on tape chastising his girlfriend for bringing “black people” with her to Clippers games. In the audio, made public by TMZ, the rhetoric continues in the vein that you might expect of a stilted argument between a racist Jewish man and his 50-years-younger black-and-Hispanic girlfriend. (Is it politically correct to acknowledge the hilariousness of this relationship? I don’t know. Fact is, it’s a riot.)

Some of the particulars of the situation (which I’m admittedly still parsing out myself) are puzzling, maybe even a little troubling. Who taped the conversation? What was the motive behind it? Did it constitute entrapment?

And in any case, one could argue, Sterling’s speech — no matter how deplorable or divisive — is constitutionally protected. Even if the voice on the tape (which Sterling’s girlfriend reportedly confirmed is indeed that of the Clippers owner) reveals him to be a scumbag of the highest order, he broke no laws, right?

All true. All irrelevant.

See, Sterling has spent a professional lifetime showing his true colors through his business practices and dealings behind only-semi-closed doors. (Just Google “Donald Sterling discrimination” for a taste.) Even if none of Sterling’s questionable behavior in his 30-plus years as Clippers owner has been egregious enough to put him behind bars, it’s one of the massive failings of venerated former NBA commissioner David Stern that the league under his watch never so much as issued a rebuke of Sterling.

Now Stern’s replacement, Adam Silver, has acted swiftly and in the league’s (and, it should be noted, the Clippers’) best interests by slapping Sterling with a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine — both maximum penalties under the league’s bylaws.

In this separate case — Donald Sterling v. NBA Public Relations, Merchandising and TV Money — the league is well within its rights to rake the Clips’ owner over the coals. The NBA conducted its own private investigation — Silver announced that Sterling himself admitted that it was his voice on the audio in question — calculated the math and decided, wisely, to subtract Sterling from the equation.

We are reminded ad nauseam that professional sports is a business, that leagues essentially are bound to answer only to themselves. Most often we find that it’s players and fans who lose out when the NBA or some other league moves to protect itself, whether it’s finagling tax breaks for a new stadium, uprooting a franchise from a heartbroken city or forcing a working-age adult to pantomime the charade of college athletics by setting an arbitrary restriction.

But when the personal views of one foolish old man compromised the NBA’s homogenized culture, and thus its relationships with corporate sponsors and television partners, Silver and the league acted no differently: with a selfish eye on the bottom line of a billion-dollar enterprise.

For once, we can all say, “Good for them.”

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