High point of the Donald Sterling fiasco – or was it the low point – came with the belated revelation that the nutty basketball mogul might be terminally ill in body as well as in spirit. All of which inspired in massive boldface this astounding headline filling the front page of scandal-loving America’s newspaper of record, the New York Post:
‘HE’S REALLY SICK: NBA BIGOT HAS CANCER!’
In response to which, we presumably are expected to offer, “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” There is no under-estimating the capacity for bad taste in the American culture.
Not to be out-flanked in the media feeding frenzy that Sterling’s racist rant inspired, the irrepressible Barbara Walters, still hustling scoops well into her eighties, gave us a tender interview with the co-star of this wretched mess, femme fatale Vickie Stiviano, thus conferring on Mr. Sterling’s improbable ex-gal pal the secular immortality only the true doyenne of American celebrity journalism can confer while also casting Ms. Stiviano as, heaven help us, a victim.
What was the point of it? What meaningful lesson to take from it? Why am I wasting my time wondering if it had anything to do with anything other than titillation and ratings? Believe me when I tell you it would be impossible to make this stuff up.
There being no room left on the soap box, I’ll spare you yet another lofty sermon about how despicable Mr. Sterling may be and how ridiculous all the other characters in this absurd melodrama surely are, too. You know all that. The point has been adequately made.
Although it should be noted that also worthy of indictment are the NBA, which tolerated the old fool’s loathsome act for a quarter century; the long line of estimable fellows, including ex-Celtic Coach Doc Rivers, who accepted well-paid jobs with Sterling even though they apparently well knew that he was a clown; and David Stern, the ex-commissioner whom everyone showered with accolades upon his retirement just weeks ago. The new commissioner, Adam Silver, is hailed as a hero for finally getting tough on Sterling. Nonsense! It’s not like he had a choice. There are no heroes in this miserable tale.
Owners in sports are a quirky breed, always have been. Owning a team in any game is not the normal pursuit of rich guys. Historically, most people of wealth have mainly yearned to parlay their riches into still more riches, and until recently there were a lot better, easier, smarter ways to do that than by owning a dumb ballclub.
In baseball, long the biggest money game, some always did well, like the succession of plutocrats who have owned the Yankees. But they were out-numbered by the suckers who got taken for a ride, like the owners of the Braves, Browns, Phillies, et al. Early on, pro basketball was a particularly lousy investment. The Boston Celtics at their mightiest had a string of about a half-dozen owners who got beat up badly before bailing out sadder but wiser, generally after only a couple of years.
It was in the 1970s that the scene began to change, at first incrementally, thanks to television and expansion, and then with revolutionary impact, thanks to radical improvements in marketing, media, franchising, venues, fees, rights, and surging gate receipts. Finally there was the frosting on the cake, glorious cable, the veritable slot machine that is now spiking the value of franchises in all sporting leagues and alliances to dizzying heights. To the hotshot investor,who yearns for a touch of pizzazz spicing up his business dealings to go with all the bragging rights and ego balm, owning a sports team, once so widely thought to be the domain of the goofy, has become too good to be true.
Moreover, you can be a total idiot and still profit mightily, a fact Owner Sterling has been proving quite brilliantly. He purchased the LA Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, presided over the poorest performance of any team in North American sports for three decades, then brought utter shame to himself and his game. Yet, if he now sells out as he’s being ordered to do, he’ll walk off with a profit of over a half a billion bucks! According to Forbes, the last word on the subject, the book value on the Clippers has risen to almost $600 million, despite the crazy owner’s determined effort to destroy the team. And sporting franchises nowadays never sell for less than their book value. It’s such a great country!
And it’s thereby no surprise that you find off-the-wall characters and stray rascals sprinkled among the more traditional entrepreneurial types in ownership ranks. Basketball has a bunch of them. Along with the stunning example of Sterling, there’s the Russian politician in Brooklyn whose ultimate goal is to unseat Vladimir Putin; a billionaire playboy in Texas with an opinion on everything; a maverick cable potentate in Manhattan; and a jet-setting heiress in California.
Several have been disciplined by the league office, allowing for plenty of precedent for dealing with Sterling. Glen Taylor, owner of Minnesota’s Timberwolves, was booted out for a year, fined $3.5 million, and docked five Number One draft choices just for circumventing the NBA’s salary cap. So Taylor’s fine was a million bucks heftier for breaking a regulation designed to keep player’s salaries under control than Sterling’s fine for bringing disgrace upon his entire game. Interesting! Further interesting is the fact that the present interim chair of the NBA’s Board of Governors, which will preside over any and all actions taken against Sterling, is – you guessed it, mate – Glen Taylor.
It’s widely held that banishing Sterling will be much tougher than Commissioner Silver seemingly implied when he denounced the rogue owner and his “hateful opinions” so thunderously and with such fine theatrical flair on national television. It might have been wiser for Silver, said to be a gifted lawyer, to have been more cagey. He indeed has moral outrage on his side, but his adversary may have an edge in the law.
Plus, Mr. Sterling knows his way around a court room, knows how to work the system, having had much experience, knows how long he can stretch it, and doesn’t give a hoot. Still more to the point, by every indication from those who know him best, Mr. Donald Sterling can be a major league polecat when cornered. It’s unlikely he’ll capitulate.
A court of law, while agreeing the fellow is disgusting and his speech abhorrent, could rule that no crime has been committed, thus rendering the NBA’s proposed punishment inappropriate. After all, being a fool and a jerk while holding personal opinions that are repugnant has rarely been deemed a crime in this country unless such crummy behavior is backed up by specific illegal acts. This is actually a good thing because the jails are full enough as it is.
Even more likely is the possibility that said court might just regard the means by which Sterling’s opinions became public, via the secret recording and unauthorized release of his mindless claptrap, to be an offense at least equal to his rancid ranting. This notion has already been called the key issue in the case by no less than Kareem Abdul Jabbar, as proud and principled a black athlete as ever played any game in this land. But then Jabbar has always been good at thinking outside the box, which can’t be said for all the indignant moralists, mainly in the media, who’ve mounted the soap box on this matter over the last week or so.
One can see this case, should it go all the way, becoming something of a landmark judicial moment. Can the NBA handle that? Might it wish to get entangled in something quite so onerous, thus extending its embarrassment indefinitely? Interesting question, eh!
Here’s a prediction, loathe though I am to make them: Mr. Sterling, unrequited maverick/rogue/rascal that he truly is, will opt to fight to the very bloody end, driven by the sure knowledge that old age and illness make it likely he’ll beat this rap if he goes to court and fights fiercely because it’s more likely he’ll die in the meantime. Thus, in the end, nothing will be decided.
That’s the manner of tiger they have by the tail. Not very pretty, is it?