TMZ Sports is reporting that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made a series of shockingly racist remarks in a recorded conversation with his girlfriend. How that network could obtain the audio of a private conversation between two individuals is unclear, but if it is real and accurate, an explosion has just detonated in Los Angeles.
An owner of a professional sports team is a public figure dependent on the allegiance of fans for revenue -- these attitudes are unacceptable anywhere -- but an owner has a higher fiduciary standard. An NBA team is a business, but it also carries the imagery of representing that city. Sports and athletes can provide opportunities for positive role modelling and influencing attitudes -- when turned negative, the effects ripple.
If the remarks are untrue, Sterling needs to quickly and publicly assert his innocence in the strongest possible terms. If the remarks are true, he needs to move quickly to clarify his racial attitudes, apologize, and show that he has taken steps to prevent a recurrence. Otherwise, the viral media that powers sensational stories will run reports that the average person will see over and over. The effect gets amplified as Internet, broadcast and print reports constantly run night and day.
Ironically, sports have been a real life paradigm of how players and coaches from different races and backgrounds can work together harmoniously. Players coexist in close quarters in locker rooms and depend on each other in game situations. In contact sports, they actually bleed together. The specter of an owner holding prejudice toward black players is an explosive and destructive nightmare. It makes it worse that Sterling expresses fear of the most universally popular figure in Los Angeles, an exemplar of community involvement, Magic Johnson.
This will present new NBA commissioner Adam Silver with a dilemma. Does he pressure Sterling to resign? Does he fine or suspend the owner? The players on the Clippers are primarily black or of mixed-decent, (12 out of 14), so is the head coach and associate head coach, how can they or any employees be expected to work in an environment that is suddenly racially charged? Fox Television has the contract to televise Clippers games -- how do they react? What about the numerous sponsors? Clippers ticket holders who are outraged will seek a change. Political figures will take a stand.
This ought to be the happiest and most positive time in the history of the Clippers franchise. They are in an exciting first-round playoff series against the Warriors. They set a new win total this season, played to sellout crowds and have a chance to erode the Laker hold over the city. They have two brilliant superstars who are media megastars in point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin. This year saw the emergence of center DeAndre Jordan as a force. The Clippers were looking forward to setting the stage for enhanced television revenue. Sterling presided over years of losing and now has the best team of his tenure.
Sterling has a charitable foundation that has been active in supporting a variety of Southern California based minority programs. Ads run regularly in the Los Angeles Times touting these contributions. On the other hand, in 2006 Sterling was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for housing discrimination against blacks, Latinos and Koreans. He paid $2.7 million to settle the claims and another $4.9 million in prevailing attorneys’ fees.
The last thing that Southern California or the larger society needs is to have racially divisive remarks thrown into the public forum. It is also the last thing that the sports community should be experiencing. This issue is not a classic white-black conflict. Decent people from every background will feel the same revulsion.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.