Getting it right but missing the whole picture: the coverage of NBA Los Angeles Clippers owner Don Sterling’s racist remarks

Yes, we can say with near-certainty that Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Don Sterling is a racist. You don’t even have to believe that the audio tape published by TMZ is in fact Sterling talking (but it sure does sound like him); there have been other lawsuits alleging discrimination, such as the 2009 wrongful termination lawsuit by the Clippers’ general manager, African-American Elgin Baylor, who claimed that Sterling said he wanted the team to be composed of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach” (the suit was later dropped), and, that same year, the settlement of a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (this article provides a good picture of the Slumlord Billionaire), which was the largest housing discrimination settlement ever obtained by the Justice Department. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But this latest example has had the effect of focusing attention on Sterling’s entire racist oeuvre, along with the question of the scope of legal and moral responsibility to the public that a sports team and a league might have.

Predictably, politics has entered it, with some Republican pundits trying to confuse and defuse the Cliven Bundy issues by tying the two racists together to cancel them out, shouting that Democrats are keeping quiet about Sterling’s racism because he’s a Democrat! Democrat pundits shout: no, wait, Sterling’s a Republican! Others chime in: no, wait, he contributes to both parties!

This issue has nothing to do with partisan politics or campaign contributions. That is all in-the-weeds irrelevance breathlessly posted by a pundit class producing clickbait-quality content.

Then there’s the cynical gold-digger-girlfriend-set-him-up theory. Oh, the evil that besets old rich white men on all sides: conniving glossy long-haired babes secretly after them for their money get even by secretly recording some conversation and giving it to a newzz outlet. It must be true: The Donald himself said so! Clippers president Andy Roeser raises the possibility the recording may have been altered and emphasizes Stiviano “is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million….” Even the owner of Deutsch Inc. and MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch, I am sad to say, apparently hears evil intent in the “leading questions” Stiviano is heard to be asking. [Unfortunately, MSNBC apparently edited those particular comments out of the segment that was finally posted online.]

I want to say here that this is “in-the-weeds irrelevance angrily posited by grumpy old men globalizing about their bad experiences with women”, which may probably even be true, but that would then leave out women such as Joan Walsh, editor-at-large of Salon.com, who knowingly states that “it’s clear she’s using this unethical racist for one thing, and it’s clearly not his looks or his character.”

Forget all of that. Here’s what I’m pretty sure is really going on: hiding and devaluing assets prior to divorce.

In 1957, Sterling married his wife, Rochelle (“Shelly”) Stein. But, this week from TMZ:

“It’s worth noting Shelly has been estranged from Donald for years. She retained attorney Laura Wasser several months ago to file a civil lawsuit against Donald’s (girlfriend) V. Stiviano. Wasser is a top divorce lawyer, so it seems divorce is imminent.”

In 1961, Sterling began to make his career as a divorce and personal injury attorney.

How much ya wanna bet there’s no prenup? Yet the man is a trained and practiced divorce attorney. What would his years of experience suggest that he do in the event of an impending divorce? Just speculating here….

About that Roeser quote that Stiviano (hereinafter “The Girlfriend”) “is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million…”: the lawsuit was brought not by the family but by Shelly Sterling (hereinafter “The Wife”). It alleges that The Girlfriend

“…accepted gifts from Donald Sterling purchased with money jointly held by the Clippers owner and Rochelle Sterling without the wife’s knowledge. Rochelle Sterling maintains that Stiviano persuaded her husband to lavish her with expensive gifts, including a 2012 Ferrari, two Bentleys and a 2013 Range Rover totaling more than $500,000.

Donald Sterling reportedly bought Stiviano a $1.8 million duplex in Los Angeles and forked over $240,000 in living expenses and upkeep. Stiviano holds the title for the property and has refused to surrender it, according to the Los Angeles Times.”

Gifts would be beyond the reach of a divorce settlement (unless it were proved that the gifts were deliberately given to lessen the value of the marital assets). But they’re not beyond the reach of a lawsuit. Sports Illustrated helpfully notes:

“Under California penal law, it is a crime to intentionally record a confidential conversation without the consent of the person or persons being recorded. This type of eavesdropping also empowers victims of the unlawful recording to sue for money damages. TMZ’s own exposure to liability is far less than the person or persons who made the recording. TMZ is a media company with broad First Amendment rights, especially on matters that are newsworthy. Still, media companies can be sued for publication of private facts, and Sterling, an attorney by trade, could consider legal action.”

Sterling might sue TMZ. A slap-on-the-wrist suit. But let’s read that again: “TMZ’s own exposure to liability is far less than the person or persons who made the recording.” He could sue The Girlfriend for money damages, and get those gifts back. And what is she going to do about it? Is she going to say that, really, Your Honor, he was complicit in the recording, that they in fact colluded to create this recording together, that they planned to release it to the media in order to force an outcry and force him to sell the team at a fire sale? Hmmmm, maybe Donny Deutsch was inadvertently right; maybe the questions The Girlfriend asked sounded leading because they were scripted in advance. But how could she possibly prove such a crazy thing? She would no doubt be painted in the media as a conniving, lying gold digger.

How could such a theory even make sense? There could be two reasons why Sterling might do such a thing: to lower the value of the team in order to lower the value of a divorce settlement, and/or – and maybe more importantly – to force the quick sale of the team to put it beyond the reach of the forensic auditors of The Wife’s opposing legal team that might be trying to determine the team’s various income streams and true value. But, of course, you’d have to prove it.

Make no mistake: it is very important to have a healthy airing and discussion of Don Sterling’s racist comments. Sadly, along with Cliven Bundy’s racist remarks and the Supreme Court decision effectively opening the door to the potential carving up of affirmative action into a splintered checkerboard of state decisions, it is clear that equality is an issue that still requires legal vigilance and the education of hearts and minds.

It is also very important to shine a spotlight on the moral responsibility a team and a league have to the public. Even though the NBA is a private, not a not-for-profit, organization (so private that even its constitution is confidential), its teams still receive public financial support in the form of tax and other municipal incentives, and thus it is reasonable to think that there is a public interest in the moral or ‘role model’ behavior of their teams. Why shouldn’t team owners have ‘morals’ clauses in their league agreement, like players have with their teams? And, of course, the teams and the league profit handsomely from the on-court achievements of athletes and the off-court support of staff…a large percentage of whom are African-American. If moral sense doesn’t sway them, it would at least seem to make economic sense to keep rogue owners from biting the hand that dunks the basket, or buys the ticket.

Don Sterling is 80 years old. He doesn’t need to save much more for his old age. And he’s rich enough to not give a rat’s ass if anyone thinks he’s racist. But he – and others associated with the Clippers – might care very much about not getting a corporate colonoscopy. We should continue to shine the spotlight on racism, but let’s be careful: sometimes that spotlight can be used to distract and blind us to things others might not want us to see.

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