Few saw it coming Tuesday, but after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banished the league’s longest-tenured owner and pledged to sell Donald Sterling’s team out from under him, the harsh stance took on an air of inevitability.
Sterling’s casual racism has been a matter of record for years, but for most of that time his team was horrible and he was easily ignored. Now the Clippers are a contender, and social media have made his behavior and attitude far more accessible than reams of court filings ever could.
The now-notorious surreptitious recording — in which the 81-year-old Sterling chastises his mistress/acquaintance for having her photo taken with prominent blacks and tells her not to bring them to his team’s games — thrust Sterling’s obnoxiousness into the public’s face.
It took only one business day for that recording to become a full-blown crisis for the league. The recording came out late Friday; corporate sponsors began abandoning the Clippers on Monday; the franchise was draining value almost by the hour. A significant part of the NBA’s appeal to corporate America is its popularity with blacks; the Sterling recording severely undercut that brand.
Silver and the 29 other owners (including Mankato’s Glen Taylor, the chairman of the league’s Board of Governors) had to fear that the infection was not going to be limited to the Clippers. A response that appeared to shrug off Sterling’s racial contempt would merely serve, in the public eye, to align the rest of the owners with him.
And then there was the pressure from the players. It was, perhaps, one thing for the Clippers players to wear symbols of protest during a playoff game during the weekend.
But when the defending champion Miami Heat did the same, it was a warning sign that the discontent was wider. (It is worth noting that LeBron James, the successor to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan as the NBA’s most marketable face, is far more active on social issues than the other two.)