A stream of sponsors cut ties with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Mayor Eric Garcetti called for the harshest possible punishment Monday as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver prepared to announce the results of his investigation into remarks about blacks attributed to team owner Donald Sterling.
Sterling's purported comments were widely condemned, and the commissioner, after three months as leader of the 30-team league, confronts one of the most unsettling crises the NBA has faced in recent years.
Although NBA bylaws give the pro basketball league the power to oust owners in limited circumstances, experts said Silver would more likely hit the Clippers' owner with a sizable fine and a lengthy suspension, perhaps with the intent of pressuring the real estate magnate into selling the franchise he has owned for 33 years.
"He'll tell Sterling, 'If you choose to stay, I won't let you go to any games,' " predicted Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and a former consultant to the NBA players association. "'I won't let you make any personnel decisions. I won't let you communicate with the general manager, hire anybody in the front office, or talk to the media. You could do that, or sell the team … and walk away with a $700-million capital gain.' "
Sterling paid $12 million in 1981 for the team in San Diego and three years later moved the Clippers to Los Angeles. Years of losing would ensue, but the team's fortunes and value have risen precipitously in the last few years. Forbes magazine recently valued the team at $575 million, though some in the sports world think the franchise could sell for as much as $700 million.
The websites TMZ and Deadspin posted audio recordings over the weekend of a man they identified as Sterling chastising a female friend for making public her association with blacks. The conversation took place after the woman, V. Stiviano, posted an Instagram photo of herself posing with Lakers great Magic Johnson.
On Monday, 15 Clippers advertisers said they have terminated or suspended their sponsorship, although most expressed their continued support for the team's players, coaches and fans.
Announcing their departure were CarMax, State Farm, Kia, Virgin America, Red Bull, Mercedes-Benz, LoanMart, Southern California Ford Dealers, Yokohama Tire, Burger King, Sprint, Samsung, the Commerce Hotel & Casino, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and the company that makes Corona beer.
The flight of carmaker KIA and insurance giant State Farm were particularly noteworthy because the companies employ as spokesmen two of the team's stars — Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. Both companies said their ad campaigns would continue to feature the two Clippers.
Garcetti said he welcomed a change in ownership and said that in the short run, at a minimum, the league should suspend Sterling for the remainder of the playoffs. Garcetti called the owner's comments unacceptable in a city of great diversity, where many people came because they were "escaping prejudice, racism, discrimination."
The NBA's bylaws allow for owners to be expelled from the league, though that power is reserved for limited circumstances, such as the inability to operate financially, gambling on league games or fixing games, said Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University.
A more likely route for Silver lies within Article 35 of the NBA Constitution, which allows the commissioner to indefinitely suspend owners for "conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the association."
Team ownership is a privilege, not a right, and damage done to the cartel of teams and owners — such as the loss of advertising and sponsorships — could be cited as the first evidence of harm to the NBA, said Irwin Raij, a sports business attorney with Foley & Lardner in New York.
"The NBA is a very powerful brand. These statements clearly are prejudicial and can negatively impact the business of the NBA," he said. "As a result, I think the commissioner has a very strong argument to say the statements are detrimental to the league."
Several experts said that an indefinite suspension — barring Sterling from games and overseeing management of the team — might be enough to persuade the owner to sell the team.
Those who have followed Sterling's career predicted that the 80-year-old lawyer and apartment baron would not give up the Clippers, or the limelight, without a fight.
But more evidence emerged Monday that if the owner maintained control of the team, he would face an angry and alienated group of employees. One Clippers player wondered in a conversation with The Times whether he could get out of his contract by citing Sterling for creating a "hostile work environment." The player declined to be identified because team members were told not to discuss the matter.
William B. Gould IV, a Stanford law professor and expert on labor relations, said it would be difficult for players to make such a move unless they had specific clauses placed in their contracts about working conditions.
Some NBA agents said the Clippers would almost certainly face a more difficult task in attracting free agents.
Sterling maintained his silence Monday. The team issued a statement Saturday, questioning the authenticity of the audio recordings and stating that the feelings allegedly expressed by Sterling were the antithesis of his beliefs.
The statement also suggested that Stiviano leaked the recordings (which she has denied) to retaliate against Sterling after his wife filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit naming Stiviano as the defendant.
The backlash against the Clippers owner was unrelenting. Players for NBA teams showed solidarity with their counterparts in Los Angeles. Players for the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks wore black socks Monday night during their game. Miami Heat players removed their warmup tops at midcourt before a game Monday against the Charlotte Bobcats, revealing warmup shirts turned inside-out. That mimicked the Clippers protest before Sunday's game against the Golden State Warriors.
A Los Angeles community group called for a demonstration against Sterling near Staples Center before Tuesday night's Game 5 against the Warriors in the first-round playoff series.
Clippers fans have lived through decades of mostly losing basketball and this year's team has been considered a championship contender.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Monday that he had slept for only 45 minutes the night before Sunday's game, in which the team seemed distracted, suffering a blowout loss. Rivers said he was struggling to decide whether he or a player should address the Staples Center crowd Tuesday.
"We want to make the right decisions here. We're doing our very best to try to do that," Rivers said. "If we feel like that is something that will help our fans, then it will be done. If we feel like that's something they don't need, then we won't do it."
It became clear Monday that buyers were already eyeing the Clippers. Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso said he would be interested in leading, or joining, an ownership group.
"I think the opportunity to buy the team is going to be relatively high, given that it's going to be very difficult for Donald to get past this," said Caruso, who was part of a group that tried to buy the Dodgers. "And the only way he is going to get past this is to step down. Whether it's me or somebody else, clearly there needs to be new ownership."
Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan, Andrea Chang and Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times