What should the NBA do with Donald Sterling?

basketball1The NBA has a huge public-relations problem on its hands with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private comments on race that have seen become very public. The question is, What should the NBA do with Sterling, and even more to the point, what can the Association do with Sterling, who has owned the Clippers since 1981?

The easy thing to say, but hard thing to accomplish, is to say that, oh, yeah, obviously the NBA should force Sterling to as immediately as possible divest himself of the team and go wherever the hell closeted racists go once they’ve been outed and stay there until he shrivels up and dies a lonely death.

OK, so it feels good to think and say and write such things, but then what about the real world that we live in? Sterling owns a valuable property in the form of the Clippers franchise, and this is still America, land of the free, home of the brave, where you can be a racist if you want and still own things.

We may find out differently later today or sometime in the near future, but it doesn’t seem that the rules governing membership in the National Basketball Association as franchise owners give the Association the power to force divestiture for anything other than illegal gambling. Meaning new commish Adam Silver has an interesting quandary on his hands. Public pressure is on Silver and the league office to do something, but … again, what can be done?

One suggestion has been to take the lead of the NCAA in the wake of the penn state football scandal and allow Clippers players a one-time amnesty to declare themselves free agents to essentially break up the current roster. That would be a shame for those in the organization not named Sterling, like coach Doc Rivers and star players Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have turned the long-moribund franchise into one of the favorites to win this year’s NBA title.

Rivers, who won an NBA title as coach of the Boston Celtics before joining the Clippers organization, has made public comments denouncing Sterling’s racist diatribe, but we have yet to hear from Paul, Griffin or any other current L.A. player, probably because the team is mired in a tough first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, and as repulsed as they all may be at the team owner’s nonsense about race, they’re professional athletes, and opportunities to win championships are few and far between in their profession.

But let’s say that they win the championship, or at the least advance a round or two into the playoffs. Obviously the value of the franchise is enhanced based on its level of success, which translates into ticket and memorabilia sales. On the flip side, then, the open free-agency solution could serve to dramatically decrease the value of the franchise, which would matter only if Sterling, who ran the Clippers for decades without apparent concern for wins and losses on the court, were to care about such things.

It’s not hard to think that the famously obstinate Sterling would ride out the declining value of his franchise and that the only collateral damage would be on players, coaches and fans. It’s also not hard to think that any action by the Association to try to strip him of his ownership would be met with a lawsuit.

Which takes us back to our original question: what does the NBA do with Donald Sterling?

Don’t be surprised if it’s nothing. In fact, be very much surprised if it’s anything of any consequence.

– Column by Chris Graham


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