Opinion: Both Donald and Shelly Sterling are toxic; both should leave the Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers owners Donald and Shelly Sterling at game in Staples Center.
Los Angeles Clippers owners Donald and Shelly Sterling at game in Staples Center.
(Getty Images)

As if the commissioner’s move to push Donald Sterling out of the NBA and force him to sell the Clippers isn’t legal complication enough for the league, now Sterling’s wife Shelly is staking her claim to own the team because it is held in a family trust that includes her. I think many of us react to this with the same angst and exhaustion that showed on Clippers Coach Doc Rivers’ face when he was asked for his reaction at the news conference after his team lost game two of the Western Conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We almost made it out of Oklahoma City,” Rivers said ruefully, adding, “I’m not prepared to make a comment.”

He’s not alone. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t seem prepared to make a comment either. And he set up this situation by banning Donald Sterling from running the team for life and calling for the other team owners to force him to sell — but somehow ignoring the fact that the team is held in a family trust. I guess he thought that the litigious Sterlings would just fold up their tent, sell the team and pocket their, like, $980-million profit.

Certainly, that works for me and millions of others. But it’s looking like it’s not going to be that easy.


But it could be that easy. If Shelly Sterling really wants, as she said Wednesday, for the primary focus to be on “our” team winning an NBA championship, then she should not only stop her efforts to become sole owner of the Clippers, she should persuade her husband to sell the team.

We know why he should sell — his remarks have embarrassed Los Angeles and the NBA and have been unconscionably disrespectful of the players on his team. He needs to exit the league.

Why she should step back is a little more complicated. It’s not because she’s just his wife. I would never argue anything that anti-feminist. But I would argue that she has not set herself apart from him as a co-owner of the Clippers in any way. For one thing, few of us even realized she was a co-owner until the last couple of weeks. For all intents and purposes, it’s Sterling who has stewarded the team’s finances (for years he was notoriously cheap when it came to players’ contracts) and hired the management. If Shelly has been pulling strings behind the scenes, then now is the time to speak up and let us all know. Otherwise, she has been simply a “die-hard fan” with great courtside seats. This is not the case of Frank and Jamie McCourt who, from the get-go, positioned themselves as controlling owners of the Dodgers with official titles. Both shared the glory. Both got lambasted.

That said, Shelly and the rest of the members of the family trust fall under the now-tainted shadow of Donald Sterling. They are all entangled with him and need to leave the league with him. And, by the way, there are court filings that accuse her of racist statements and actions similar to the ones her husband was accused of in dealings with tenants renting apartments that were part of the Sterling family’s expansive real estate holdings.

Two big lawsuits alleging that Donald Sterling discriminated against blacks, Latinos and families with children were settled by Sterling without him admitting any wrongdoing. In one deposition, a property manager alleged that Donald Sterling complained that “blacks smelled” and that Shelly Sterling also complained about one black tenant’s uncleanliness, saying, “See, Sterling is right, they do smell.”

While their lawyers could no doubt battle this out in his-and-her lawsuits against the NBA for the rest of the Sterlings’ lives, it’s just the wrong thing for the team, the NBA and the city of Los Angeles. Both Sterlings are toxic for the Clippers and need to bow out.