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Can Donald Sterling Save Himself From The NBA?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. So we have an update on a story we've been following. And at this point, Donald Sterling probably doesn't need an introduction. But just in case, he is the owner of the NBA team the LA Clippers, and he was caught on tape making racist remarks about African-Americans. He's also been sued in the past and settled complaints saying he discriminated against blacks and Latinos in renting properties that he owned.

The NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league would take steps to remove Donald Sterling from ownership once those remarks were confirmed to be his. And now Commissioner Silver has made good on that threat. The NBA has made a formal move to terminate Donald Sterling's ownership interests because, quote, "Mr. Sterling's actions and position significantly undermine the NBA's efforts to promote diversity and inclusion," and quote, "damage the NBA's relationship with its fans," unquote.

We wanted to hear more so we've called Pablo Torre, senior writer at ESPN. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Pablo, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you, Michel, as always.

MARTIN: So this was an expected move here. What's the next step? What has to happen now?

TORRE: Right, so the league has initiated its charge to terminate Donald Sterling's ownership of the Clippers. And this is a month after the tape was released, which fits within the NBA's kind of self-appointed sense of judiciousness and swiftness. And so right now that charge means that on May 27, Donald Sterling will stand before - once he gets his charge in - will stand before the NBA Board of Governors on June 3. Sterling has until May 27 to respond.

And so at this point, what he's doing is assessing whether he wants to respond, which would open up another can of worms if he doesn't. But also he now has to appeal to his fellow owners, to appeal to their sense of judiciousness in order to convince them that, in fact, they don't want to oust him because three-quarters of the Board of Governors would be required to complete that termination.

MARTIN: Who presides over this? And are there rules of conduct and - similar to a judicial hearing? I mean, who's the judge?

TORRE: Yeah, it's not quite a judicial hearing. But it's Adam Silver and the Board of Governors and the NBA executive structure. And this is - it's a good question because the NBA is far more of an idiosyncratic kind of fraternity slash country club slash private institution and not quite like any sort of federally-run business or institution. It's not like a college or state institution where you can appeal to a sense of due process.

In fact, one of the conversations that's been ongoing in the Donald Sterling saga is this NBA constitution, which was, in fact, secret to the public until this case. That's how opaque it was, and it was opaque on purpose. It was this thing that was private and sort of the membership governed its own.

But we know in that constitution that due process isn't the same thing. The owners, when they agreed to buy into the NBA, they agree that the NBA's its binding authority. They actually waive their right to sue. Now, Donald Sterling certainly can challenge that on other judicial grounds, but that's sort of the standard. And there are all these articles in that constitution which say you may not engage in unethical conduct and you cannot damage the NBA, which is one thing that the NBA is certainly talking about in that charge.

But there's another thing where Donald Sterling has refused to pay the $2.5 million fine, which had come out previously. And that violates, in fact, in another article - Article 13C where you talk about how failure to pay your debts to the NBA is explicitly grounds for termination. So Donald Sterling has been digging himself a fairly sizable hole.

MARTIN: It's been reported by sportsillustrated.com that the attorney for Donald Sterling has asked for more time. He wanted three months to respond instead of the couple of weeks until the end of the month that the commissioner has laid out. And he's also refusing to pay the fine. Is all of that true?

TORRE: Yeah, that's what's been reported so far. And all of this, again, adds up to this picture of Donald Sterling, who we already knew to be a, you know, a guy who loved litigation. He's a lawyer. But the fact that he is being difficult about the structure and the process here is not endearing him to the NBA at all, certainly not.

And so when the owners are looking at this guy, you know - I think Donald Sterling, in some sense, realizes - look, he's been rejected summarily by the marketplace of ideas and the American public at large. And I think he senses that the NBA owners are pretty unanimous in the direction they're going to go. And so he's fighting and scrapping for every edge that he can. But in terms of convincing these owners, none of that is going to endear them to him.

MARTIN: To that end, Donald Sterling did do an extensive interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. And it seems as though he further offended not just fans and individuals but the league.

For example, he - by making comments about the basketball great, now entrepreneur - Magic Johnson has not really done much to support the African-American community. And he's made disparaging comments about his HIV status, for which Commissioner Adam Silver apologized on behalf of the league. So it's hard for me to understand what his strategy is at some point, right? I mean, his...

TORRE: It's totally undecipherable. I mean, all of the things he said publicly will be used against him at this hearing and in the process of terminating his ownership because all of those comments about further criticizing minorities, further showing himself to be insensitive at best - his greatest tactical error, quite honestly, Michel, might be going after Magic Johnson. This guy who is so beloved and represents so many positive things, and yet he keeps on attacking him, which further offends the NBA, further offends the public, further divorces him from any reality that the public can sympathize with.

So it's insensitivity towards a man in particular but also just the general situation of African-Americans who comprise the NBA in terms of employees and also fans. I mean, all of this stuff is an indecipherable PR strategy. And one of the things that you could tell from that interview, he didn't even know that Anderson Cooper was openly gay. Like, he had not been coached for that interview. Or if he had, he had willfully neglected it for some reason. All of that adds up to a picture of Donald Sterling who is somebody you do not want to be an owner in your league.

MARTIN: Have the other owners - you mentioned that they have to have a super majority.


MARTIN: Three-quarters of the owners have to agree to terminate his ownership interest. Has there been any indication of where they're going on this?

TORRE: Yeah, the thinking is that Adam Silver, in all of his savvy and a legal mind himself and the protege of David Stern, he would not have moved as swiftly and as clearly as he has about this if he didn't have a full majority. People are expecting this to be a clean sweep. The owners seem to be on the same page. And that's something that, you know, you wonder - if this were ever to be publicly leaked, the voting - right? - you would not want to be one of the owners who supported him. And that media pressure at the very least is a significant factor.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. That was going to be my final question. Is there generally public consensus on this? I mean, you have to note that I made pains to say who Donald Sterling is and debated whether that was even necessary because the story seems to have...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...Just kind of completely dominated public consciousness, at least for people who are interested in sports. But, I mean, everybody from the Secretary of State John Kerry to Justin Timberlake to the president.

TORRE: To Eric Holder...

MARTIN: To Eric Holder.

TORRE: ...To everybody has weighed in, right.

MARTIN: Yeah, have - have kind of had something to say about this. It's more than a meme. So you're saying that you feel that the owners would be under a lot of pressure if they didn't...

TORRE: Exactly. And it feels like they're totally on the same page. And one of the things that was interesting to track was you had owners early on in this saga voicing kind of these philosophical critiques. Mark Cuban was talking about, you know, the right of an owner to say what's in his home, you know, privately and have that used against them is a slippery slope.

But all of that very quickly evaporated. Cuban did a complete 180, completely reneged on that philosophical critique, which is worth discussing.

MARTIN: Why is that? Yeah. Why?

TORRE: And I think it was because the public pressure became so unanimous that the conversation around Donald Sterling became so radioactive. You know, there is that intelligent, sophisticated conversation to have about public versus private.

But one of the things that Donald Sterling established is he has sort of this - as one of my colleagues put it - this sort of lifetime achievement award for racism thing where everybody understands who he is and what his history is. And even if it's not being explicitly brought up right now, everybody's sensitive to who this man has been for so long that they feel it's very dangerous to use him as a hill you might want to die on, so to speak, philosophically.

MARTIN: That was ESPN senior writer Pablo Torre joining us from our bureau in New York. Pablo, thanks so much for keeping us up to date on this.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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