LOS ANGELES – The NBA on Tuesday handed a lifetime ban to longtime Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, an extraordinary step in professional sports and one intended to rid the league of Sterling after he was recorded making racist comments.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would try to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, fully expecting to get the necessary three-quarters approval from other team owners. It would be a rare, if not unprecedented, move for a North American professional sports league – made even more unusual by the fact that the NBA is punishing Sterling for comments he made in a private conversation.
Sterling was also fined $2.5 million, the largest that league bylaws would allow, but a small percentage of his estimated $1.9 billion fortune. It is unclear how Sterling, who is believed to be 80, will respond. He has made no public comments in his defense since the episode began.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver said. “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.”
Dozens of players and several team owners quickly released statements applauding Silver’s move. Even the Clippers’ organization, apparently freed from the fear of repercussion from their unpopular owner, released one with the approval of Andy Roeser, the team president, and Doc Rivers, the team’s head coach.
“We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver today,” the Clippers’ statement read. “Now the healing process begins.”
The team’s website featured an all-black background on its homepage, and a simple message: “We Are One.”
The controversy was sparked over the weekend by the public release of audio clips of Sterling making wide-ranging racist remarks in a conversation with a female acquaintance. He was perturbed that the woman posted pictures of herself online with black men, including Magic Johnson, who played his Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Don’t put him on Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me,” Sterling said, in recordings released by TMZ. “And don’t bring him to my games. Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast, that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
Sterling has made no public comment about whether the voice was his, but Silver said that the NBA’s investigation had revealed that the voice belonged to him, and that Sterling had admitted that the words were his.
Silver did not elaborate on what grounds, specifically, the league believed it could force Sterling to sell the team, nor did he make clear how a transfer of ownership might be conducted. The Clippers are valued at more than $500 million.
Sterling’s comments have overwhelmed the NBA playoffs, especially the first-round series between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. The teams were tied, 2-2, in the best-of-seven series before Tuesday night’s game in Los Angeles. At Sunday’s Game 4 in Oakland, Calif., Clippers players wore their practice shirts inside out, concealing the team’s name, as a sign of solidarity and protest. Other teams in the playoffs followed.
“Former and current NBA players are very happy and satisfied with Commissioner Silver’s ruling,” Magic Johnson said on Twitter.
Sterling is not the first owner of a professional sports team to run afoul of his league’s standards, but he might end up with the most severe punishment. George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees’ principal owner, was given a lifetime ban from the day-to-day operations of his team in 1990 for conspiring with a gambler in an effort to defame Dave Winfield, a Yankees player. But Steinbrenner was not forced to relinquish his ownership of the team, and he was reinstated three years later. Also in the 1990s, Major League Baseball twice suspended the Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for offensive comments about blacks and Jews, but the league did not ask her to sell the team.
The NBA’s response to Sterling’s comments may put an end to one of the more criticized ownership tenures in American sports. Sterling bought the San Diego Clippers – originally the Buffalo Braves – in 1981 and moved them to Los Angeles in 1984, deep in the shadow of the popular and successful Lakers. The Clippers spent decades as a consistent joke, with Sterling the easy punchline. The team managed just one winning season in Sterling’s first 24 years as owner.
But a few years of high draft choices and strong basketball management have turned the Clippers into a burgeoning league power with an enviably deep and talented roster.
The NBA has long been uncomfortable with Sterling, and not just because of his stewardship of the downtrodden Clippers. He was unsuccessfully sued by the team’s former general manager, the NBA great Elgin Baylor, for age and race discrimination in 2009. Baylor said in the suit that Sterling “had a pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” and ran the team with a “Southern plantation-type structure.”
That same year, Sterling paid $2.76 million to settle a housing-discrimination suit brought by the Justice Department on behalf of African-Americans, Latinos and families with children.
Silver said Tuesday that Sterling was being barred from the league for his recent comments, but that the owners’ coming decision whether to force him to sell the Clippers would take into account his entire ownership tenure. Silver said the process to vote on forcing the sale of the team would begin immediately.
In a courtyard outside the downtown City Hall, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, a former NBA player, gathered with a contingent of current and former NBA players with ties to the city’s teams, the Clippers and the Lakers.
“This is a defining moment in our history,” Johnson said. “Through history, sports has played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights – Tommie Smith, John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics; great leaders like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Jason Collins and our very own Jackie Robinson. I believe that today stands as one of those great moments where sports once again transcends, where sports provides a place for fundamental chance on how our country should think and act.”