Before the National Basketball Association came down hard on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the corporate world hit him.
Sterling was condemned almost immediately for the disparaging remarks he made about African-American fans and players. The remarks hit the airwaves on April 27 and by the afternoon of April 29, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life.
But before that happened, corporate America struck. Companies like State Farm, Red Bull, Virgin America and CarMax pulled their sponsorship dollars from the Clippers before the NBA even scheduled its blockbuster press conference.
Which kind of makes you wonder how many partners the NBA was trying to appease when it kicked Sterling to the curb.
Certainly, the NBA wanted to show its understanding of the matter to its players association, which reports more than three-fourths of the players on the rosters this season were African American. Over 40 percent of the coaches were African-American this last season, a percentage that reflects the power that race has managed to accrue in the league.
But the league also had to hurry to appease its sponsorship base, which showed its intentions regarding Sterling immediately. The league and its individual teams receive millions in sponsorship dollars annually, and a hint of racism can tinge those sponsors in a way they would not appreciate. As a result, the NBA felt the need to respond quickly.
Then there is the TV revenue. The NBA has a $930 million deal with ESPN and TNT that runs for a couple more years, and the next deal could have been endangered by a race relations problem, which is part of what caused the league to suffer so much back in the 1970s before the rebirth brought on by the rivalry between the whitest of white men, Larry Bird, and the happiest of black men, Magic Johnson.
Unfortunately, the story is not over and it has at least three angles that need to be further examined.
First, Sterling is certain to sue, if only to defend himself against the charges that could hurt his outside real estate businesses. Of course, he settled a Justice Department filing against him for racial profiling of renters years ago, and that didn’t keep him from accumulating $1.9 billion. But if he does not sue and just accepts his banishment, he is admitting he is a racist of the worst kind, and Sterling cares about his public image a great deal.
Second, there is going to be an examination, perhaps brought on by the best of sports journalism, regarding what the league knew about Sterling’s views prior to his recorded outburst in the last few days. The Justice Department case alone proves the league knew he had disappointing views, and other reports that did not require legal action were reportedly known by insiders. How much did the league ignore over the years? Former Commissioner David Stern, who retired earlier this year after 30 years on the job, will be called out.
Third, to think that Sterling is the only racist in the NBA would be naïve. Racism remains a hot bed topic in America 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and it might actually run both ways in the NBA, white against black and black against white. How the NBA handles the next example of blatant racism will be a huge event.
The NBA was swift in telling Donald Sterling to go away. But the problem that was brought to light by his recorded statements will expand.