There are a lot of questions remaining about the strange, vile, racist comments that have been attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The audiotapes need to be authenticated. The context of the remarks, which represent 16 minutes out of what was apparently an hourlong conversation, should be explained.
But if it turns out that the tapes have not been doctored or misrepresented, and if Sterling did indeed castigate a female friend for associating with black people, then it is clear what needs to happen: Sterling must sell the team. If he doesn’t do so on his own, the NBA should apply whatever pressure it can, whether that means fining him or suspending him or using whatever other tools it has at its disposal to urge him out.
The comments, if he made them, are a disgrace to Sterling himself, but more than that, they are an enormous embarrassment to the NBA and the city, and a heavy burden on the talented team now battling to win round one of the playoffs in its best season ever. While we generally support the right of individuals to say and think even the most offensive things, the team is not just another of Sterling’s private businesses; it is also a civic institution that plays under the banner of the city of Los Angeles. The city ought not be associated with an owner who says that he doesn’t want his mistress (if that’s indeed what she is) bringing black people to his team’s games — a remark made even more offensive by the fact that more than three-quarters of the players on the team and in the league are black. On the recording, the speaker tells the woman that it “bothers” him that “you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.”
Sterling is an octogenarian billionaire who has often been accused of bizarre and unseemly behavior; this is the latest an extensive string of racial controversies. In 1986, he was one of the first NBA team owners to hire a black general manager, Elgin Baylor — who, two decades later, sued for wrongful termination based on age and racial discrimination, although the racial claim was eventually dropped. Sterling, who owns apartment buildings throughout Los Angeles with thousands of rental units in them, was sued privately in 2003 for discriminating against blacks and Latinos in renting, and then sued again in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice on similar charges. He settled both suits, paying millions in each case.
If the allegations are true, this can’t be written off as just a crotchety old man caught on tape saying something disagreeable. This is the wealthy and powerful owner of a basketball team that plays in a televised spotlight before millions of fans.
If the tapes are legitimate and the voice is Sterling’s, that’s not a voice the city of Los Angeles or the NBA need to hear any more coming from the Clippers owner’s courtside seat.