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Will ban on Donald Sterling lead to greater changes in the NBA?

April 29, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
The National Basketball Association took its toughest stance ever against a team owner when it banned Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling as punishment for racist remarks. Gwen Ifill talks to William Rhoden of The New York Times and Charles Pierce of Esquire and Grantland about the impact of players standing together on this issue, as well as how the league has dealt with Sterling’s racism in the past.
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GWEN IFILL: The National Basketball Association took its toughest steps ever against a team owner today, coming down hard on Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed during a press conference in New York that Sterling’s was — that was the voice on a widely circulated recording that contained racist remarks.

NBA players immediately praised the decision on social media and at a Los Angeles news conference, where former player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson spoke.

Here is what — some of — some of what they had to say.

ADAM SILVER, NBA Commissioner: Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.

Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.

I am also fining Mr. Sterling $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.

QUESTION: If you don’t get the three-quarter vote that you need, is it possible that Donald Sterling could still be an absentee owner profiting from this team, even though he’s banned physically from doing anything with it?

ADAM SILVER: I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.

SACRAMENTO MAYOR KEVIN JOHNSON, NBA Players Association Representative: I believe that today stands as one of those great moments, where sports once again transcends, where sports provides a place for fundamental change on how our country should think and act.

GWEN IFILL: For more reaction now to the day’s events, and what comes next, I’m joined by William Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Time, and Charlie Pierce, a staff writer for Grantland, a sports and pop culture Web site. He also writes regularly for “Esquire” magazine.

Will Rhoden, did Adam Silver do the right thing?

WILLIAM C. RHODEN, The New York Times: Well, you know, Gwen, he did basically the only thing he could do.

I mean, it was a powerful step. It was a very good step. But had he done anything less than that, anything weaker in that, I think that he would have had a moral train wreck on his hands, more of a moral train wreck than he already did.

So I think that Adam was strong, but, again, he did what he had to do. He had to do this.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Charlie Pierce? Was he in a position where he had no other choice but to do what he did today?

CHARLIE PIERCE, Grantland: Yes, I agreed with Bill. And I think he did all he could do for the moment.

Now, I think the players and the people interested in this issue are perfectly within their rights to ask for a timetable on the sale of the club, because I think you can judge from the answer he gave to the question, unless he — if he doesn’t get the votes of the rest of the owners, they’re not going to be able to make the guy divest himself of the team.

So I think that, as Bill said, he did what he had to do. He did all he could do today. Now we will see what’s going on down the line.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Bill Rhoden. We know that he is going to be fined $2.5 million. We know that he is going to be banned for life. He can’t go to games, go to meetings, any of that.

But in selling the team, being forced to sell the team, isn’t he going to reap a huge profit?

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Oh, well, Gwen, you ask a great question.

Donald Sterling does not lose. He wins. He wins. But what I hope happens, though, is from here — you know, I was at the press conference. And there was sort of a sense that, OK, we took this guy and flogged him and the wicked witch, meaning the wicked witch of racism is dead.

And it’s — this is far more insidious and pervasive than this. This is more than about Donald Sterling. This is about institutional racism throughout the industry, throughout the NBA, throughout the NFL. And by that, I mean that, when you go through an NFL franchise or an NBA franchise — and I have invited the players to do that — they will be stunned when they go to visit all parts of the department, marketing, legal, the executive suite, and find out how few black people there are.

So, yes, Donald Sterling articulated something, he didn’t want black people around, but people can make that same statement without necessarily being clumsy like he was. They make the statement in terms of who they don’t hire, who they don’t have around.

So I don’t want this — the problem with this is that, you know, it’s over and I think — you know how we do with race. We make a big deal out of it and now we move on to the playoffs and the NBA championship, and thank God, the players, we don’t have to really take a stand. So I just want this to be the beginning, not the end.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Charlie Pierce about that.

Is this something which you sense will go on beyond what it is now?  Because, as you have written, this is not the first time, for instance, we have heard of Donald Sterling making comments like this, and nothing happened before.

CHARLIE PIERCE: No, Donald Sterling has been a cancer on this league merely from a competitive standpoint since he owned the team.

He has acted out his racism before in his private business, which is basically being a landlord. And that’s being very kind. Otherwise, I think what Bill is talking about, if it’s going to go forward, then this can’t be the only time the players get together and decide to take a stand on this, OK?

The players — if the players are going to — have an advantage now, they have to push it. For example, they have to lean on the league to make this sale happen, and not to — it is unfathomable to me that Donald Sterling might still own the team next fall. That can’t be allowed. If what Adam Silver is serious, that can’t be allowed to happen.

On another venture, what does Adam Silver do now, for example, with the DeVos family in Orlando, which funds anti-gay candidates and anti-gay issue ads all over the country, as well as owning the Orlando Magic? Does he talk to them? This is an entirely new world.

And if we’re going to step into it, let’s step all the way into it.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this, Bill. Why is it the players to be the ones to force this action, rather than the other owners, which is the immediate question?

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Well, I think that it is.

I think it’s on the other owners, and I also think it’s on the consumers, on fans. The fans, you know, they weren’t really in the crosshairs on this, but I think that they have got some moral decisions to make, too, in terms of embracing this.

I think people always focus on players because, you know, they’re highly compensated, highly visible. In terms of a league that’s 75 percent African-American, they’re probably the most highly visible set of African-Americans, outside the prison industry, that we have in this country.

So, I think it is — let me just say this. This is about self-respect. And if those players in the NBA, and particularly as it goes — the Clippers, if they continue to use the N-word — and we know that’s flying around the locker room — maybe this will be an impetus to stop it, because you can’t have it both ways.

You can’t accuse Donald Sterling of using — quote — “racist language,” when — when I’m sure when he goes in the locker room, he hears you disrespecting each other all the time. So, hopefully, this will be, ironically enough, what Sterling said will be an impetus for players to start respecting themselves in terms of the language they use to each other.

So, yes, I think that a lot of this weight has to fall on the players, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Charlie, is Bill being a little optimistic here that this is an opening for a larger conversation that is going to change the way the NBA functions, change the way players relate to each other, change the way we all talk about race?

CHARLIE PIERCE: No, I mean, I hope so. But if I had a nickel for, you know, every time an event happened where we were going to have a new conversation in this country about race, I would be richer than Donald Sterling is.

GWEN IFILL: So, what has to happen? What do you see as the immediate fallout, then, if that doesn’t — short of that?

CHARLIE PIERCE: What I meant about the players, when I mentioned the players, what I mentioned about the players was, it seems that their unity in this particular instance was the tipping point that forced the NBA’s hand. There was some serious talk about not playing during the playoffs.

This is the thing I’m insisting cannot be a one-time thing. If they’re going to take that kind of role as a legitimate, unified force within the league, they have to take it on every issue. That’s what Bill is right about.

GWEN IFILL: And how about dollar signs, Bill Rhoden, briefly? Are we talk — all the companies that threatened to pull out their support for the Clippers, that also — is that the sort of thing which is also a tipping point?

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: That may have been the catalyst, Gwen.

There were like 13 companies that immediately pulled out. And if you don’t think they’re back there — the NBA are not back there counting nickels, they say, wait a minute. We have got to stop this.

And again getting back to Charlie’s point, I think that the players, those of them who have some insight, will look, wow, we really have some economic muscle. Look what we — just by threatening, just by threatening not to play, just by threatening to boycott, just in sort of raising our voices, all these companies pulled back, and now they’re all coming back.

And any reasonable group of people would think, wow, we really have some muscle. Let’s make this players association a really strong and powerful force.

I just hope that Chris Paul’s leadership is strong. And I hope Kevin Johnson stays in, because I do think that this could be a catalyst for something — for something very strong. I really — I really — at least I’m hoping so.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will all be watching to see if that is so.

Bill Rhoden of The New York Times, Charlie Pierce of Grantland and “Esquire,” thank you both.

CHARLIE PIERCE: Thank you.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Thank you.