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Will the NBA send a strong message to Donald Sterling for racist remarks?

April 28, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
Racist comments attributed to Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, have left NBA owners and players scrambling to determine the best course of action. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated and Kenneth Shropshire of the University of Pennsylvania to weigh the league’s options, and how punishment could backfire.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Basketball Association said that it will make an announcement tomorrow about its investigation of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, and the racist remarks attributed to him.

The league, the rest of its owners, the team’s coach and players are all figuring out what to do next, as the Clippers get set for a playoff game back in Los Angeles tomorrow night.

Word of tomorrow’s statement comes amid mounting pressure on the new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, to take strong action against Sterling. Audio clips released by Web sites TMZ and Deadspin purportedly capture the Clippers’ owner arguing with a then-girlfriend, identified as V. Stiviano. She defends being seen with former Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson.

V. STIVIANO: I don’t understand. I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.

DONALD STERLING: Well then, if you don’t feel — don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.

V. STIVIANO: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?

DONALD STERLING: You just — do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It doesn’t stop there, as Stiviano, herself of mixed black and Latino heritage, challenges Sterling, and he goes further.

DONALD STERLING: It’s the world. You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.

V. STIVIANO: So do you have to treat them like that too?

DONALD STERLING: The white Jews — there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?

V. STIVIANO: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?

DONALD STERLING: A hundred percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This isn’t Sterling’s first brush with accusations of racism.

In 2009, former NBA Star and Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor filed a wrongful termination suit, alleging age and racial discrimination. A jury ruled in favor of Sterling. The Clippers owner and real estate magnate was also sued twice for housing discrimination. The cases were settled out of court.

But the recordings have sparked a firestorm. Magic Johnson announced he won’t attend any more Clippers games while Sterling remains the owner.

EARVIN “MAGIC” JOHNSON, NBA Hall of Famer: He’s got to give up the team. If he doesn’t like African-Americans and you’re in a league that’s over 70 percent African-American.

MAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlotte Bobcats owner and former superstar Michael Jordan weighed in, saying: “I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. As a former player, I’m completely outraged.”

From Malaysia, President Obama condemned the comments as incredibly offensive.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything. You just let them talk. And that’s — that’s what happened here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And across the NBA, current players spoke out.

Miami Heat forward LeBron James:

LEBRON JAMES, Miami Heat: make this the greatest game in the world. And for comments like that, it taints our game, and we can’t have that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Clippers made their own visual statement, shedding their shirts to reveal inside-out warmups, hiding the team’s logo, before Sunday’s playoff game with the Golden State Warriors. L.A. lost 118-97.

Head coach Doc Rivers conceded the furor could have affected his club.

DOC RIVERS, Head Coach, Los Angeles Clippers: You know, like I said before the game, they’re getting pulled in so many directions, so we have to figure how to pull them in one direction, and then we will be back in the series.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other teams organized their own silent protests, wearing black socks in some of yesterday’s playoff games. There was more fallout today. The NAACP’s Los Angeles chapter canceled plans for a lifetime achievement award for Sterling. And used car chain CarMax became one of several companies to drop its sponsorship of the Clippers.

So what are the next steps for the NBA and Donald Sterling?

For that and more, I’m joined Michael McCann. He is director of the University of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, and he’s a legal analyst for “Sports Illustrated” magazine. And Kenneth Shropshire is director of the Wharton Sports Business Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Both of you have followed the business of sports for a long time. How do you — what is your reaction to what Donald Sterling is alleged to have said.

Michael McCann, you first.

MICHAEL MCCANN, Sports Illustrated: Well, I think, at a starting point, it’s outrageous that someone would hold these views in 2014, really at any time, but particularly nowadays.

And I think it’s certainly a matter that the NBA has to address seriously, although I would also note that it’s not an easy process to reconcile. And I say that because the NBA has to approach this under the rules of the league, in ensuring that it doesn’t take any steps that prove to be wrong.

For instance, the recording itself, the NBA wants to be sure that it’s authentic, that it hasn’t been tampered with or spliced in any way that is inaccurate. So, the league has to approach this cautiously, but at the same time be sure to issue an appropriate sanction to reflect what was said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about that in just a moment.

But, first, Ken Shropshire, your reaction?

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE, University of Pennsylvania: Well, it’s not surprising. If you follow Donald Sterling’s — Donald Sterling’s history, this is something that is not new.

I think what is important at this moment is for the league to really recognize that this is a moment in time where they have the opportunity to make the rules right. As Michael refers, it’s very difficult at this time for them to do the right thing.

So, there should be in some sense a form of a morals clause for owners as well within their governing — governance. There should be a way to move somebody out that expresses, that delivers, that actually acts in this type of way.

So, if this is all proven to be true, it’s very sad that the NBA is handcuffed in how rapidly they can move to encourage the divestment of this ownership interest by Donald Sterling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ken Shropshire, my apology. There’s a little bit of an audio difficulty. Maybe we can get the microphone closer to your mouth, so we can hear you a little bit better.

While that is adjusting, let me come back to you, Michael McCann.

We know the Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, said late today he thinks there’s a strong message coming from the NBA tomorrow. What do you expect them to do? And you have already talked about this. You said it’s complicated. So, what can they do?

MICHAEL MCCANN: Well there’s different options that are on the table.

One is to fine Donald Sterling, is to issue a sanction where he could be fined apparently up to $1 million. The fine, though, of $1 million is certainly a lot of money for almost all of us, but Donald Sterling is reportedly worth in the ballpark of $1.9 billion.

I don’t know if a million dollar fine is going to have the impact that is necessary. The league could also suspend him, suspend him for some period of time, a year perhaps, and during which he would be excommunicated from the franchise. He wouldn’t be able to have any contact with the team, its coaches, its players, its staff, wouldn’t be able to go to practices, wouldn’t be able to go to games.

It would be like a restraining order. That would send a message, although still he could make money off the team. The league could also pursue a more radical approach by trying to force him to sell the team. But the league constitution, which is the key legal document at stake, doesn’t likely give the NBA that authority.

And if it were to pursue that path, Donald Sterling could sue the NBA and not be leaving any time soon. I think what we will see tomorrow is that the league will say something to the effect of, Donald Sterling won’t be around the rest of this season, and after which the league will make a more determinative decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Shropshire, and I think we do have the microphone fixed now.

What would be involved in ending his ownership of the team, which is we heard Magic Johnson and others calling for? They are saying, until he is no longer the owner of the team, they’re not going to the games.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: Well, as Michael expressed, it’s a very difficult process, but not one that is impossible.

You know, if you look back through the history of leagues, there’s a case that focuses on the idea of who can become an owner. And the courts expressed the whole idea that it’s an exclusive club. It’s only 30 people that are a part of this club. You can choose your partners carefully.

What we don’t have is strong case law talking about how you can unravel that situation. So, that’s the decision the league would have to make if they wanted to take those steps. It would be new territory. The constitution and bylaws don’t express a manner to do this, other than for economic reasons.

But this is the challenge that Adam Silver is confronted with. And it may well be that the path that is taken is one of a series of suspensions. And, as we know, everybody is not with us forever. Sterling is not a young man. So, in a matter of time, the situation will change.

And, as I said, this is not the important issue. The issue is, how are you going to deal with this going forward?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the short term — I understand in the longer term, something else could happen.

Michael McCann, what steps could the league take if it decides that suspension and a fine are not enough? How would it technically, legally move forward?

MICHAEL MCCANN: Well, as Ken noted, it’s a very difficult situation for the NBA to literally for him to sell the team, that the league would have to argue that, under the constitution, which talks about, from when we know — it’s a confidential document — from what we know about it, that it talks about forcing an owner to leave when he is in financial trouble, not able to pay bills.

That’s not at stake here. Now, you could maybe take a very expansive view of the language and say, well, some sponsors are cutting deals with the Clippers. That is now starting to threat economically the Clippers and the NBA indirectly. But, as Ken noted, if the NBA goes down this path, it’s unprecedented, it’s uncharted, and the language of the key legal documents doesn’t appear to authorize it.

And, also, this is the real issue. Will he sue? Will he file a defamation lawsuit? Will he file a breach of contract? Will he file an antitrust lawsuit saying the NBA and other teams have joined hands to force me to sell my team at below-market value, I lost hundreds of millions of dollars, which, under antitrust laws, would be troubled?

It’s a situation that could defeat the over — if the goal is to remove Donald Sterling, forcing him out may end up having the opposite effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, we are very much into speculation territory here, because we don’t know what the league is going to do.

But, Ken Shropshire, back to you. As we just mentioned, there are advertisers, not just CarMax, but a number of others have said — Mercedes-Benz, car dealers and others are saying they are either cutting or suspending their relationship with the team.

Could that economic effect more Donald Sterling to take a step and separate himself?

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: Well, the immediate economic effect on the team will be negligible.

And it really will not have that much impact. But Michael makes a good point. The idea that it could last for the long term, that that could be pointed to as a reason to at least move forward and try to divest this ownership interest.

I mean, I think, more realistically, what is happening now is more of a conversation with Sterling, an attempt to have a rational conversation, to point to him, look, this is where this thing is going to end up. We can do this gracefully or this will take a long period of time, where there’s going to be a lot of discomfort and a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money in the process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that’s what — you believe that is what is going on behind the scenes right now?

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: That would be my belief. That would be the most logical step for all the parties to take in this instance.

And I’m sure, as part of the diligence process, that’s what Adam Silver is up to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Shropshire and Michael McCann, we thank you both.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: Thank you.

Note: Due to web restrictions, this video was edited.