At this time of year, NBA talk is usually about the Miami Heat and what team it’ll wrestle for the championship trophy. Not this time.
The basketball world is consumed with the racist comments an 80-year-old billionaire team owner made to his young, biracial mistress. The comments were surreptitiously taped.
As Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling argued with his girlfriend, he used offensive words in describing minorities — words that landed like a punch to the gut of every black NBA player.
He sounded like Archie Bunker, talking as if black men were nothing more than slaves to be admired from afar, but not to be mingled with publicly.
Mr. Sterling sounded like Big Daddy on a plantation of black workers who need him to survive. “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”
It culminated Tuesday when newbie NBA Commissioner Adam Silver dropped a Kryptonite hammer on Mr. Sterling — a lifetime ban from the NBA, barring him from all contact with the Clippers. He topped it off with a $2.5 million fine.
As the dust settles, troubling questions creep in.
Were Mr. Sterling’s views really a surprise to his fellow NBA team owners? He’s been a member of this exclusive club since 1981. He has a history of being accused of bigotry. In 2009, Elgin Baylor, the all-star and former Clippers’ general manager, accused Mr. Sterling of racial and age discrimination. Mr. Baylor lost, but today he must be saying, “I told you so.”
That same year, Mr. Sterling, paid $2.725 million to settle a housing-discrimination lawsuit brought by the Justice Department and, in a third lawsuit, Mr. Sterling ran into trouble for refusing to rent to black, Latinos and Koreans.
But is his punishment — though appropriate — for his nasty words, or a result of his peers’ reluctance to rein him in years ago? Mr. Sterling is not the only team owner who looks bad here, it’s just a matter of degree.
And there is precedent: Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, was suspended twice in the ’90s for praising the Nazi Party.
South Floridians can be proud of Miami Heat players who, led by LeBron James, denounced Mr. Sterling and visibly supported the Clippers. Commend the team for recognizing a pivotal, stand-up-and-be-counted moment on an issue that goes beyond the basketball court.
Egg is on the face of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was preparing to honor Mr. Sterling with a second Lifetime Achievement Award. What were they thinking? No doubt Mr. Sterling’s financial donations to the group had something to do with it.
Although Mr. Silver moved swiftly and decisively, the controversy has opened up team owners’ personal conduct to scrutiny. Players rightly say they have to follow rules of conduct off the court. Why not the owners?
Ten years ago, a story based on a secretly taped conversation between a powerful rich man and his young mistress would not have seen the light of day.
What Mr. Sterling said was despicable, but he likely assumed his comments would remain private. But such is today’s media landscape.
After Mr. Sterling’s fate was announced, the Clippers issued a statement that ended with the words: “Now, the healing process begins . . . ”
We hope so.