The Slippery Slope of NBA Ownership
Leaked Racist Tapes, Sexual Harassment, Deception
The National Basketball Association’s quest to strip Los Angeles Clippers franchise owner Donald Sterling continues and with that there is a maddening lack of inquisitiveness from the sports media community. There are questions that should be asked and might be addressed if Sterling v. the NBA ever becomes a reality in some federal or local court room in Los Angeles.
Is Sterling being unfairly picked out because an audio tape surfaced on TMZ’s website that included Sterling’s racist and sexist rant along with his views on the Ethiopian Jews situation in Israel? The NBA has just focused on a narrow part of the leaked taped to Harvey Levin’s TMZ enterprise (which is co-owned by NBA media partner Time Warner and the TV show has been purchased by Sterling’s cable TV partner Rupert Murdoch for his FOX owned and operated TV stations in major markets across the United States). The sexist rant is important but has been largely ignored by both the NBA and the NBA connected sportswriters, radio talk show and TV talking heads community.
The Ethiopian Jewish problem in Israel has also been ignored but some Jewish leaders have said Sterling doesn’t know what he is talking about and should not be considered an expert on racism in Israel.
Those last two points are not germane to the conversation but a good defense lawyer could tear the NBA apart for dumping Sterling and not handing out punishment uniformly to others who have had brushes with sexual harassment or talking about religion.
Apparently, the NBA holds Sterling to a different standard than Madison Square Garden and New York Knicks owner Jim Dolan in the Anucha Browne Sanders case. It was Dolan who paid one of the biggest sexual harassment verdicts in US history in 2007, got hit with violating federal sexual harassment laws with the Knicks. Anucha Browne Sanders was fired by the New York Knicks in January 2006 and filed a suit against Dolan and Knicks General Manager Isaiah Thomas claiming Thomas had sexually harassed her and that Dolan fired her after her lawyer complained to Madison Square Garden officials about Thomas’s alleged treatment. The Garden contended that Browne Sanders was fired because of “an inability to fulfill professional responsibilities.”
In October 2007 a jury ruled in favor of Browne Sanders and awarded her $11.6 million. The jury awarded Browne Sanders $6 million because of the hostile work environment that they jury believed Thomas created and $5.6 million because Browne Sanders was fired for complaining about it. Two months later the two sides settled with Dolan and the Garden giving Browne Sanders $11.5 million.
The NBA apparently never took any action against Dolan or Thomas. Commissioner David Stern had so code of conduct written into the NBA by laws but as owners know contracts are merely words put on a paper and don’t mean much. Stern left Dolan, who was one of his 30 bosses, alone and decided not to create a mess in the boardroom and told ESPN in an interview. “It demonstrates that they’re not a model of intelligent management. There were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue.”
The often complimented tough Stern had no problems disciplining players. Stern was so image conscience that he wanted to impose an NBA dress code for players. But he spit the bit on the Browne Sanders case. He punted on punishing Dolan.
The same could be said of Stern in his handling of Sterling who faced racial discrimination charges in 2003 and 2006 in his housing business and settled out of court along with a sexual harassment suit which he settled out of court. Sterling’s history with the NBA goes back to the days of Commissioner Larry O’Brien with a record of a racist slur in 1983. Sterling also stuck it to the NBA in 1984 when he moved his franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles without league consent. He filed a $100 million lawsuit daring the NBA to block him eventually the two sides settled with Sterling giving the league $6 million and the league saying yes to the move.
One time Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for age discrimination when he got fired. He lost the case but the trial testimony should have raised eyebrows in the NBA office because some of the testimony should have been embarrassing to the league. But Baylor lost and Stern again looked the other way.
The religion issue is also a tricky question for the NBA. In 2001, New York Knicks player Charlie Ward said some disparaging things about Judaism to a New York Times reporter which drew the ire of the anti-defamation league. Ward also said that women journalists did not belong in the team’s locker room before and after a game to do their jobs.
Stern issued a statement condemning Ward but took no other action even though some of what Ward said could have been offensive to Jews and women. Ward issued an apology and that was that.
The NBA has signaled out Sterling because of a tape on a tabloid website that “damaged” the league but if the league went looking for other troubling areas in a public relations mode, they would not have to waste time and look at a tabloid website and TV show. The can do a quick search engine look.
Richard DeVos in Orlando has given the some of my friends are gay talk publicly and even employs gays and lesbians.
In a league that wants tolerance and inclusiveness, DeVos’s remarks can be considered incendiary. DeVos and his family contribute heavily to anti-gay and lesbian movements and are reverently against gay marriage. This happening while the league embraced its first openly gay player in Jason Collins.
DeVos is a member in good standing while Tim Hardaway was in exile for a while for his anti-gay comments on a radio station in Miami. Hardaway said he “hates” gays. Hardaway is back in the NBA family after being rehabilitated. The difference here, DeVos is an owner, Hardaway a former player who lost a chance to be part of an NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas in 2007/ DeVos also contributes heavily to politicians who would like to pull money out of public education.
But DeVos, who played hardball with Orlando officials to get a new arena and put in the mind of local politicians that he would move without a new publicly funded arena, is a solid member of the league’s ownership.
Dolan is on the committee to strip Sterling of his franchise. Clayton Bennett heads up that committee. The Oklahoma City owner Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics franchise in 2006. Bennett’s partners really wanted a team for Oklahoma City and by 2007 it became clear to them that Seattle wasn’t interested in building Bennett and his Oklahoma City partners, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward a new building which was a prospect that delighted McClendon and Ward.
McClendon was so excited by that failure of Seattle to acquiesce to Bennett that he told the Oklahoma Journal-Record “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here. We know it’s a little more difficult financially here in Oklahoma City, but we think it’s great for the community and if we could break even we’d be thrilled.”
Stern was less than impressed and fined McClendon $250,000 for his remarks. When it became clear that Bennett and his partners were planning to get out of Seattle, former SuperSonics owner Howard Schultz tried to undo the deal in 2008 but it was too late. Bennett and his team negotiated a settlement to get out of the last two years of the Seattle arena agreement and left.
McClendon and Ward also gave big money to anti-gay marriage groups. Ward is leaving the NBA as he sold his share of the Oklahoma City franchise in April.
Mark Cuban suggested going after Sterling could lead the NBA onto a slippery slope. Cuban needs not to really worry, the sports media community isn’t going to go through every ownership and find something objectionable.
Harvey Levin and TMZ have cleaned the sports writing community’s clock on this story. Levin has had a great year covering sports and that is not his charge. He had the Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s video which led to Rice’s arrest for hitting his girlfriend and Sterling. Levin may also be playing ball with the Los Angeles County District Attorney on an investigation of how that audio ended up at his office.
Sterling’s biggest crime was that the tape was leaked and the world heard it or at least the narrow sports world heard it. Advertising got scared and walked from the Clippers franchise. Once the money threatened to leave, the NBA acted. As far as a players walkout. Would they have put their money where their mouth is? Doubtful. The players and agents know that would have been a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and there are enough owners around to lockout the players.
Sterling never seemed to be a problem for the arena owner in LA, Phil Anschutz who took his money in exchange for a lease to allow Sterling’s franchise to play in the building. Sterling wasn’t a problem for Rupert Murdoch who paid him for Clippers cable TV rights; Sterling wasn’t a problem for advertisers who signed on to sponsor his franchise.
Nope, a lot of people have bailed on Sterling after the tape was released. But something doesn’t smell right. If Sterling had an odious reputation prior to the TMZ website audio release why didn’t people walk away from him?
They took his money. After all, it is all about money. There is nothing sacred about sports. The often quoted Sternism, the “covenant with the fans” was always a joke.
Sterling was signaled out. Racism is worse than a sexual harassment verdict, worse then moving a franchise. This is the slippery slope for a team of Sterling’s barristers. This thing will never go to a full trial, the business of the NBA is just too sordid and the NBA probably doesn’t want the dirty laundry aired. It’s better to keep the illusion and pay off Sterling to go away than have a jury decide if Sterling was unfairly picked on because he violated some vague NBA constitutional clause.
A good defense lawyer will shred that clause which apparently is there for show. It is only in use to protect the league’s logo and revenue streams.
It’s all about the money not some great moral cause.
Evan Weiner can be reached at email@example.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489 ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11 ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11 ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition