Should the NBA Do Anything About Clipper's Sterling?

Peter Keating's recent ESPN The Magazine story on the troubling background of Clippers owner Donald Sterling ends on a contemplative if uncomfortable note. After a 5,000-word narrative on Sterling's forays into racism, sexism, misogyny and the owner's complete lack of self-awareness -- all reported in painful detail -- Keating leaves the reader with a bit of a question: why isn't anyone in the NBA stopping him?

It's an uncomfortable question, not just for Secaucus or fellow owners or Sterling's players. It's uncomfortable for NBA fans, too.

If you haven't read Keating's piece -- do it! -- here's a quick summary: Sterling has been prosecuted by the federal government for discrimination against black and Hispanic prospective tenants at his real estate holdings. For a few decades, he has hired "hostesses" for Clippers-related events, and in several cases allegedly asked these hostesses for sexual favors for himself or friends. He allegedly told Elgin Baylor he wanted to field a team of "poor black boys from the South ... playing for a white coach." Et cetera. He's a bad dude, according to Keating's research and countless stories over the past several years.

So how is a Clippers fan supposed to feel about this? The easy route, which I assume some take, is to ignore it. Sterling doesn't wear the laundry, after all. You aren't cheering for Donald Sterling out on the floor -- you're cheering for Baron Davis Zach Randolph Eric Gordon. The team and the owner, to a degree, are separate entities. Most NBA fans wouldn't recognize their owner in a check-out line. I venture to say many Clippers fans wouldn't recognize Sterling at a wine bar, assuming Sterling doesn't walk around shouting his own name. (Such an assumption comes with some danger, I understand.)

But as these stories amplify, as the depths of Sterling's unsavory personality come to light, it's going to be much more difficult to ignore. This goes beyond James Dolan, who quite regrettably allowed a frat house to erupt in his front office. It certainly laps Mark Cuban's insider trading rap a few times. This is the owner of a predominantly black team in a predominantly black league in a city (and one would assume a fan base) with a substantial number of Hispanics who discriminates against blacks and Hispanics in his primary line of work in a blatant enough fashion to get sued by the federal government. This, to me, is not ignorable.

That makes the reaction of NBA figures quoted in Keating's story pretty disappointing. Mark Jackson, analyst and future coach, brushes it off with a "What can I do about that?" and a "Lots of player, owners, people at ESPN have been charged or sued over something." A Hawks VP with a record of speaking out on discrimination issues wouldn't address Sterling's record. And as Keating notes, it's been a pretty quiet topic on the blogs historically. (Note: FanHouse did write about Sterling's discrimination case in March 2008.)

What can the NBA do? Slap Sterling on the wrist? Threaten to take his team? I don't know. But at the least we in the cult of the NBA -- fans, bloggers, reporters, players, coaches and other owners -- can stop ignoring it, stop pretending it does not exist. This is serious, regrettable business in general, doubly so for an NBA owner. In all honesty, sweeping it under the rug only empowers Sterling to keep trying to get away with it.

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