If he said what he said. . . then the NBA has a big problem on its hands.
I do hedge a bit here if only because I am wary of attempts at railroading people throughout history, including the Boston Massacre, the Scottsboro Boys and the Duke men's lacrosse team. It can be much easier to fabricate evidence against someone today if you are technologically savvy than ever before It also can be more plausible to do so against Sterling because of the fair housing lawsuit that he lost several years ago So I do qualify my remarks on that basis, as it would be terrible to combust a situation on fabricated evidence. Sterling has contended, at least to some degree, that he is suing the person who makes the allegations and, therefore, the source is suspect. Attacking the source, though, can be a tactic of someone who is caught in the act. Deflect attention way from the subject matter to the source and the means of collecting the information. The latter seemingly tends to happen more than the former. But both happen.
So, assuming that Sterling said what he said, the NBA has a big problem. At many levels. First, can it really tolerate a racist owner? Second, will the owners, wealthy men who have corps of lawyers and public relations artists at their beck and call, yield to public pressure to compel Sterling to sell the team? The answer to the former is "heck, no," qualified, perhaps, with a statement, "except, to a degree, perhaps, we have done so for years, without knowing it." The answer to the latter complicates the answer to the former, because the owners don't know how to define what would justify compelling an owner to sell a team. To do so here might mean that they could do so for other reasons as well, and then the slope could become very slippery. The owners, at least some of them, will contend that if their by-laws aren't clear, that they are dealing with a situation akin to the First Amendment. They'll defend almost anything an owner does, but they'll let the court of public opinion decide whether that behavior is good or not and then let consequences happen.
Except that argument fails miserably when you are trying to protect a brand and an image and an overall business. Sure, your neighbor can spawn all sorts of junk about an ethnic group, and the sunshine on that speech theoretically will disinfect the hatred among his more reasonable neighbors. But with a product -- professional basketball -- that logic is much more complicated. Permit a Sterling to own a team, and what are you saying to the fans and the players about the overall brand? That it doesn't matter what an owner's opinions are so long as he owns the team and so long as he pays the salaries? And then that gets further complicated because Sterling might have been dumb enough to say something that got recorded, but who knows, deep down, what some other owners' thoughts are on women, religious groups, other ethnic and racial groups, etc. (I once had someone connected with a major sports league tell me that a former leader of that league was an anti-Semite, and this person still gets trotted out as a voice of reason when controversy surrounds that sport -- but that leader did not espouse his views in public, so he gets venerated -- at least with someone like a Sterling there is transparency).
Analogous to a degree is the Penn State football situation involving Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Penn State. There is no doubt that Penn State had a defective culture that failed to address the Sandusky problem. But did that mean that Penn State violated any NCAA laws other than bringing too much negative attention to an institution that is under fire and that has made boneheaded decisions in the past? In a certain way, the Penn State situation was akin to putting a volleyball-sized baseball on a tee for Miguel Cabrera with the World Series on the line -- the NCAA could hit that ball out of the park blindfolded. But just as it isn't within the rules for Cabrera to slug a volleyball off a tee to win the World Series, was it really within the NCAA's purview to whack Penn State over something that affected the broader university culture horribly than specific NCAA rules (and where the irony is that Penn State is more prone to graduate its scholarship athletes than almost any other school in the country -- and with meaningful majors at that). Make no mistake, what happened at Penn State was awful, but did it mean that the NCAA really had the right to come in as hard as it did on the football program? Maybe it did, but there is a strong argument that it did not. That said, it was very defensible because the underlying conduct involved the repeated assault on defenseless young boys. Or, at least very defensible in the court of public opinion than perhaps under NCAA rules.
And that's where the slope can get dangerous. The NCAA did what it thought it had to do, all the while being woefully inconsistent in other areas (for example, the "bread and circus" environments that some colleges subscribe to or condone, where there are almost as many personnel attending to a football team as there are deans throughout the rest of a university to help students excel). They had an easy target, and they hit it hard. In the case of the NBA, it will be interesting to see a) what the by-laws say and b) what the owners are willing to do, especially because someone like Sterling will litigate -- to defend his name, because he has a history of litigating and because he has the money to do so. And the NBA is nothing if not totally conscious of its brand and what it means to the international fan base. On the one hand, it will have to defend its brand, and, on the other, it will want to get publicity on anything other than having a racist owner in its midst.
So that's the business part of the case -- the brand, the ownership structure, the by-laws. But then there's the bigger point, and the more important one, one where values take precedence over everything else. It's not so much the "what" -- that is, the product, but the "how." As in "how do we work together to put the best product on the floor," and what type of people do we want in our league. And there, the NBA has the moral high ground. So do the other owners. The NBA can be at the forefront of transcending race in this country. Most of its players are men of color. Many of its fans are. They have some of the best athletes in the world. The owners shouldn't worry so much about the technicalities than can twist them up forever. They shouldn't worry whether the microscope of scrutiny could be focused on them for some obscure reason in the future. Assuming that Sterling said what he said, they should do the right thing -- and compel him to tun over ownership to the league and then auction the team for a reasonable price.
While technically this might be about the brand and about setting precedent and about the by-laws, it's also about something bigger than all of that. It's about core values, about having the right people making the right decisions that help reflect the best of what the league can offer to all its constituents. A league that makes it comfortable for people of all backgrounds, colors, races, religions and sexual preferences to feel that they can relax and enjoy themselves in a safe environment. Sometimes you have to take a stand that might cost you money -- in this case, the legal fees that you might have to spend in battling Donald Sterling and the money you'll spend to address publicity-related issues in the case -- but that's the right thing to do.
The league should act quickly and decisively to make it crystal clear where it stands on this point.
It's time for the owners to think broadly, not so much about their investments, but about what their leadership stands for and, correspondingly, what their league stands for. They should give Mr. Sterling the same good, due process that they give everyone else -- quickly and fairly. And then they should act.
The NBA has a crisis on its hands, but it can turn it into an opportunity.