It has been more than a generation since Donald Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers, and for almost that long he has been an embarrassment to the NBA and the organization he owns.
There was the time he allegedly asked a potential coach “why you think you can coach these n-----s.” There was the time he allegedly told one of his property supervisors that he didn’t want to rent to Latinos and African Americans because the former “sit around and smoke and drink all day,” and the latter “smell.”
There was the complaint, from basketball great Elgin Baylor, that Sterling wanted a “plantation-type structure” in which “poor black boys from the South” labored under a white coach.
There were the sexual harassment lawsuits and players’ complaints that he brought women into the locker room to “look at those beautiful black bodies” while his employees were showering.
So it’s no surprise that the now-80-year-old billionaire with the gold chains and perpetual tan is once again being accused of boorish, racist behavior. In fact, in this era of ubiquitous digital recording, it’s not even surprising that he has purportedly been caught on tape.
What is surprising – in a good way – is the swiftness with which the world has reacted this time. When Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was caught in 1992 making racist comments, it took seven years for Major League Baseball to force her to sell her majority interest in the team.
After the gossip site TMZ.com posted the recording of a man identified as Sterling telling his biracial girlfriend to stop being seen with other black people, it took less than 36 hours for everyone from President Barack Obama to Sterling’s own team to express their revulsion.
The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, on the verge of honoring Sterling for second time in five years for his civic contributions, wisely decided not to enable another reputational whitewash.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, denounced him on behalf of the Players Association. Sterling’s estranged wife, who reportedly has been meeting with divorce lawyers, spoke out against him.
The Clippers wore black socks and armbands in their Sunday playoff game. State Farm and CarMax announced Monday that they were suspending their sponsorships. New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has promised a speedy investigation and a quick response from NBA owners.
This, too, is a change, after decades in which the NBA turned a blind eye while the notoriously litigious Sterling freely tarnished the league’s brand.
Silver should keep that promise. Assuming the tape is authentic, the owners should do whatever they need to do to get rid of Sterling, ugly litigation included. It’s a new world, and the NBA has a new brand, one that is global and multicultural and inclusive.
Fans today know that 80-year-old habits don’t get cured in rehab. So do owners and sponsors. “We must have zero tolerance,” Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, part of the NBA’s new brand, tweeted. He’s right. Whole worlds can change in a generation. It’s time for this generation to leave attitudes like Sterling’s behind.