A Sterling Day

Board of Governors MeetingNBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s ouster of Clippers owner Donald Sterling sets a new, bold precedent and updated standards for professional sports ownership.

 

I’m not much of an NBA fan, which is to say not at all. I rarely pay more than cursory attention to the league. It’s just not a product that I appreciate. I love college basketball, but the NBA game is another story. Fantastic athletes, but a nearly unwatchable product.

These last five days, however, have been absolutely fascinating to me. What the NBA has just gone through with the moral stain that is Donald Sterling and how the league and its players ultimately handled the situation, in my mind, is nothing short of spectacular and applause worthy. Roger Goodell could learn a few things from rookie NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

As many readers may know, I spent 15 years working in professional sports here in San Diego. I spent five years with the San Diego Padres, and 11 years with the San Diego Chargers (one year overlapped where I worked for both). I’ve seen good owners and bad owners. I was there during the Padres’ fire sale in 1993 perpetrated by then principal owner Tom Werner. I was working in game day operations when they called us in to help the overwhelmed switchboard operators to answer complaints the team was receiving in protest from Padres fans. I think I still have the highly detailed script of responses they gave us and warned us not to deviate from.

I was with the team when John Moores swooped in from Houston and rescued the Padres, with the rebuilt roster that in 1996 brought a division title to San Diego. You think the fans breathed a huge sigh of relief once Werner was gone? That was nothing compared to how we felt. But for all of the problems and missteps Moores blundered through—mostly personal, some professional, such as the lawsuit that found he cheated his employees out of overtime pay—that eventually led to his sale of the team, he brought some real memorable moments to Padres fans and to the staff that worked for him. And because of him, we have Petco Park, which I think most San Diegans will agree is a good thing.

As for the Chargers, when you work in the NFL and get the opportunity to travel around the league, interacting with other league personnel as I did, you get a sense of what a truly awful owner looks like. Bill Bidwell, Al Davis, and Mike Brown come to mind. Dean Spanos isn’t perfect, but he’s always tried to do right by his team and his city. Believe me, we could do far, far worse. And if anyone other than Dean Spanos owned the Chargers, they’d be playing in Los Angeles by now.

Every now and then the Clippers would come up in conversation at Chargers Park. Every time they did, all I could think was thank God I don’t work for Donald Sterling. Honestly, I would have quit. I couldn’t have done it. And I suffered through Tom Werner! That’s how bad Sterling was.

In the pantheon of major professional sports team owners, Donald Sterling is without a doubt the absolute worst. Winning never mattered to him. For most of his 33 years of ownership there wasn’t even a nominal effort to build a successful team on the court. The Clippers were nothing more than a toy to him, something to use as leverage to make him seem more important than he really was; to elevate his status in order to bolster his real estate business. He moved the team from San Diego because his real estate holdings were in LA, so that’s where his NBA ownership status would do him the most good. The team was a joke, and their fans were suckers.

I’m sure there were many NBA owners, particularly in the West, that were thrilled to have him around. In most years it meant that as long as Sterling was there, no matter how bad their own teams were, the Clippers would almost always be worse, insulating them somewhat from the criticism of their own fan bases. Sterling? He just didn’t care.

But what could you do? He was the team owner. It’s not like you can fire him like you can fire the coach or the GM, although that’s exactly what was needed. It’s his team. He can run it however he wants.

That’s why Adam Silver’s decision to lower the hammer on Sterling yesterday was so historic. In one fell swoop, Silver changed the nature sports ownership for good.

In the wake of Sterling’s well publicized racist rant, Silver didn’t just punish an NBA owner, he took the unprecedented step of effectively ending the ownership. He banned Sterling from the Clippers and all NBA activities for life, and pledged to do everything in his power to garner the support of 3/4 of the NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Silver sent a message that those types of attitudes, those behaviors will no longer be tolerated; that the NBA as a league will have nothing to do with someone who holds those views.

In short: Donald Sterling, You’re FIRED!

Let’s be honest here: This is something that should have been done long ago. Donald Sterling didn’t just suddenly, mystically come up with these racist convictions. In 2006, Sterling agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Justice $2.725 million as part of a settlement amid allegations of housing discrimination in apartment buildings he owns. He refused to rent to blacks, Hispanics, and people with children. Yet Sterling was not required to admit any guilt. In 2003 he was sued, accused of housing discrimination where he allegedly told his staff that he did not like Hispanic or African American tenants. That case was settled for $5 million, again with Sterling admitting no guilt.

In 2009, former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sterling and the Clippers, claiming discrimination and a hostile workplace. Baylor, who is black, said that Sterling ran the team “with a Southern plantation like structure.” Baylor said that Sterling wouldn’t allow his GM to negotiate player contracts, and that the owner had a vision of his Clippers team to be composed of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” Baylor lost that suit, with the jury determining that Baylor was fired because the team just wasn’t very good, not because he was discriminated against.

I wonder if that jury wants another crack at that decision now? File it under the category of “if I only knew then what I know now.”

The exodus of Clippers team sponsors surely had much to do with Silver’s decision. It was clear that companies wanted nothing to do with an organization owned by bald faced a bigot. It was only a matter of time before the league’s corporate sponsors began to follow suit in the absence of clear and decisive action on Silver’s part. We’re talking billions of dollars and a new TV contract that needed to be negotiated. From a business standpoint, the NBA simply could not continue to associate itself with Donald Sterling.

But Silver sent a clear message, and set a precedent for the entire sports world: No longer can owners act with impunity. An owner’s behavior will be taken into account, with the rights and privileges of ownership liable to be stripped away if that behavior is deemed detrimental to the league itself. Team owners will now be held to a new level of accountability for their actions. There is now a clear social contract that must be upheld, no matter how rich and powerful one is. In the business of professional sports, image is everything. Image means dollar signs. Unsavory attitudes, beliefs, or actions on the part of team owners that bring ill repute to the league itself will no longer be swept under the rug.

It’s the dawning of a new era. And although he likely had the full support of a majority of the owners for whom he works, we have Adam Silver to thank for it.

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