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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was admirable in banning Sterling for life, but the NBA enabled him for too many years.

Opinion: What the NBA did right and wrong with Donald Sterling

Adam Silver seemed nervous at the beginning of his press conference Tuesday, April 29, and rightfully so — he was about to hand down the stiffest penalties ever imposed on an NBA owner.

Silver built up confidence as he spoke, morphing into a subdued outrage as he announced that Clippers owner Donald Sterling would be banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million. Monday night marked the end of an investigation that verified a leaked audio tape containing racist comments made by Sterling to his then-girlfriend, V. Stiviano.

Silver did well rendering his decision so swiftly. Sterling won’t be at Game 5 against Golden State. He won’t overshadow the most pivotal game of an entertaining playoff series. The punishment itself seems fitting, too — though it’s a shame that Silver could only fine Sterling $2.5 million.

When Silver announced the sanctions, it felt as if he were making up for more than three decades of racism that the NBA had enabled. It’s great that the league finally came after him. It isn’t great that Sterling made the content of his character obvious long ago, and the NBA repeatedly did nothing. To be fair to Silver, Sterling’s past transgressions happened while Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, was commissioner. Silver simply inherited the mess that Sterling has always been.

Stern did not discipline Sterling in 2006, when he was sued for housing discrimination by the U.S. Department of Justice. The suit alleged that Sterling refused to rent to African-American and Hispanic tenants. He said that Hispanics “smoke, drink and just hang around the building,” and blacks “smell and attract vermin.” 

The league also did nothing in 2009 when Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for employment discrimination. Baylor — the greatest wing player of his era, the best small forward of all time and one of the NBA’s founding stars — said Sterling told him to stock the Clippers with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.”

The NBA, apparently, had no problem with Sterling running his team like a plantation. Neither did the NAACP, which gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award that same year. The NAACP cited Sterling giving free Clippers tickets to poor black children as the reason for the award. The organization must have forgotten that he would never let those children live in his properties.

In this respect, Sterling is like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character from the film 12 Years a Slave. Cumberbatch plays a “benevolent” plantation owner. Protagonist Solomon Northrup defends him in one scene:

“He is a decent man, under the circumstances.”

“Under the circumstances, he is a slaver,” another slave retorts.

So Sterling gave poor black children Clippers tickets. Under those circumstances, he is a racist slumlord. Sterling’s racism is all-encompassing. His contempt extends from those he deemed unfit to live in his hotels to the affluent likes of Baylor, Magic Johnson and his team’s own coach, Doc Rivers. It’s not about class. It’s pure hatred, and the NBA left it unchecked.

David Stern had an itchy trigger finger when it came to doling out fines. Stern fined New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith $50,000 for untying opponents’ shoelaces. He fined San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich $250,000 for resting his starters for a primetime game, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban owed almost $2 million over a decade for his criticisms of referees. Stern also fined Sterling twice — $10,000 in 1982 for admitting that the Clippers would lose to get a higher draft pick and $25 million in 1984 for moving the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without league approval.

Despite these, neither discrimination suit against Sterling merited even a gander from the NBA. It doesn’t matter that Sterling settled out of court with the justice department. It doesn’t matter that Baylor lost his suit. Repeated and detailed accusations of racism must be investigated, and the source of the racism must be silenced. For the first 33 years that Sterling owned the Clippers, the NBA failed at that. In fact, the league rewarded Sterling when it traded Chris Paul to the Clippers from the league-owned New Orleans Hornets. That move single-handedly transformed the Clippers from a laughing stock to a post-season contender.

The NBA’s other owners are complicit in enabling Sterling, too. To them, Sterling was a punch line, and the Clippers nothing more than two or three extra wins every season. When Blake, Griffin and Paul brought the team to perennial playoff contention, it was a feel-good story for the previously terrible franchise (the Clippers had only two winning seasons in Sterling’s tenure prior to Paul’s arrival). The NBA likes its punch lines and it likes its feel-good stories. Why would they want to do anything about Sterling?

The NAACP undoubtedly fueled the NBA’s inaction. How bad could Sterling be if the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave him an award? The NAACP owes an explanation and an apology; it should have spearheaded the discrimination suits against Sterling. Instead, it stroked his ego and gave him a shield.

If you give a mouse a cookie, it asks for milk. If you appease a racist, he takes it as a free pass. Sterling had a free pass for 33 years. Much of the damage he caused can’t be undone, but at least he’s silenced now.

So good for you, NBA. And shame on you, NBA.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at

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