From Michael Jordan to LeBron James, from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant, from President Obama to prominent corporate partners of the NBA, the condemnation of racist comments purportedly made by Donald Sterling has come from all circles and has shown that the issue extends far beyond the Los Angeles Clippers.
They all will be watching on Tuesday, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is scheduled to discuss the league’s investigation and possibly reveal disciplinary actions against the Clippers’ owner.
A suspension of indefinite length and a hefty fine – Silver can issue one of up to $1 million without approval from owners – are possible options. However, it remains unclear how far Silver’s powers extend at this point, even though the NBA constitution gives the commissioner’s office the clout to protect the game’s best interest.
Clippers players made their statement before playing the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, throwing their team-issued warm-up gear down on center court and conducting their pregame routines with shooting shirts inside-out to cover the team’s logo. The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs wore black socks in their games as a show of support, while the Heat mimicked the Clippers warm-up statement in their playoff game against Charlotte on Monday night.
“Like I’ve said before, there’s no room in this game for an owner like that,” James said. “For us, as basketball players, we’re all brothers. We’re competing against each other and all of us want to win, but in the end, we all have to stick together. We supported our Clippers tonight and showed our respect to what they’re going through. For us, as a team, we can’t imagine what they’re going through at this point.”
Kobe Bryant and TNT analyst Kenny Smith are among the many to join James in calling for Sterling’s ouster and Jordan took a rare public stance on a high-profile issue when he said he was “disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views.”
So when Silver makes his announcement in New York on Tuesday afternoon, he will do so feeling considerable public pressure from some of the biggest names in the game, past and present, many of the league’s owners who pay his salary and have spoken out against Sterling’s comments, and corporate sponsors like Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Virgin America that are backing away from advertising at Clippers games.
If Silver’s reaction is not perceived as strong enough, more demonstrations from players, protests from civil rights groups and pulled advertisements from businesses could follow.
“The opportunity before Commissioner Silver to take an uncompromising stand against any form of prejudice in the NBA is unprecedented in the league,” said Marc H. Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League.
Former NBA star and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is serving as an adviser to the National Basketball Players Association while the Sterling matter plays out, posted a message on Twitter early Tuesday saying, “We’re at a defining moment in the history of the National Basketball Association.”
Johnson called for an indefinite suspension, the appointment of an executive or family member to run the team, and “the maximum fine possible.”
“We may not have the power to force Mr. Sterling to sell his team, but make no mistake, we believe that Mr. Sterling should no longer have the privilege of being an owner of an NBA team,” Johnson wrote. “After all, how can we expect any player (the majority of whom are African-American) to want to work for him?”
When Silver last spoke on Saturday, he promised the league would “move extraordinarily quickly in our investigation.”
“It needs to be handled in the right way,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t even know what the right way is. I have a hunch. But I don’t know.”
Suspensions and fines are two options, but removing him as the owner of the Clippers would appear to be a long shot and would almost certainly bring a lengthy and bitter legal challenge from Sterling. It could also cause concern among some owners about where the line would be drawn.
“What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with. But at the same time, that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”
At the same time, the attention Sterling’s alleged comments have brought to the league are not only affecting the Clippers, who play the Warriors in a crucial Game 5 on Tuesday night, but the league as a whole.
Losing sponsors could potentially impact bottom lines across the league because of revenue sharing and Basketball Related Income, or BRI. And the story itself has overshadowed what has been a thrilling first round of playoffs.
“This is the time of the year as players we all love,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “It’s the playoffs and you need to play this game with free minds and open hearts and they’re not able to do that right now. So it’s a very difficult situation for them to be in being right in the mix of it, something we are all affected by as players.”