NBA can't ignore Donald Sterling anymore

NBA can't ignore Donald Sterling anymore
April 28, 2014, 7:00 am
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Funny, in the aftermath of the Sterling Tapes -- the bizarre, creepy, probably illegal, ever-expanding and often unintelligible taped conversation allegedly between Los Angeles Clippers owner and nutbar Donald Sterling and whatever the heck the woman V. Stiviano was in his life -- there has been quite a lot of talk about the late Marge Schott.

As in: Former Cincinnati Reds owner and nutbar Marge Schott.

As in: The NBA should handle this one as well as baseball handled the Marge Schott situation.

As it happens, I was a newspaper columnist in Cincinnati when MLB began what seemed like a biennial suspension of Schott for whatever inappropriate Adolf Hitler comments happened to come to her mind. And as it happens, I can tell you: Baseball handled the Marge Schott case more or less EXACTLY the way the NBA has handled the Donald Sterling lunacy. That is to say they endured and tolerated her unrelenting (and, admittedly, often amusing) brand of crazy until it crossed lines even they could not ignore any longer.

Then, and only then, they acted.

Marge Schott was an insular and intolerant person who also would do very kind things. She was a cheapskate of the first order who would sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, be deeply generous. She kept a swastika armband in a drawer of a hallway table in her home, and she rarely hesitated when offered the opportunity to lecture on all the “good” that Hitler had done, and a former employee would recall her referring to two players as “million dollar n-----.”

She also called everybody (including yours truly) “honey” and she helped raise millions of dollars for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital along with various animal organizations, and you could never write a discouraging word about her in Cincinnati without getting dozens and dozens of letters from people who remembered some unexpected kindness she had done for them.

In other words: Marge Schott was a real person, and not the cartoonish Mr. Potter villain from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” That’s how it usually goes. Life is complicated. People are complicated. Real people require deeper understanding; it isn’t like "The Avengers" where the bad guys where weird masks and come riding in on giant worms.

People in and around baseball knew that while Schott had her good qualities, she also had narrow-minded views. They saw that she would fire a successful 50-something-year-old manager largely because he lived with a woman before their wedding day (that was Davey Johnson). They saw that she refused to put out of town scores on the Cincinnati scoreboard because Reds fans should only care about the Reds. They heard her moan that the tragic death of umpire John McSherry put a damper on Opening Day, which was really unfair to her.

Most of all, they heard again and again from people all around baseball, and the team, that things she said about African-Americans, Asians, Jewish people and other minority groups were distressing and could embarrass baseball at any time.

They tolerated all of it until she embarrassed the sport.

Then they tolerated all of it again until she embarrassed the sport again.

MORE: Michael Jordan on Sterling, "As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted."

That’s the way it has gone in sports forever. The first rule of Owner Club: You do not talk about other owners. Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was a virulent racist who loved that Redskins nickname and might never have signed a black player if Bobby Kennedy, as Attorney General of the U.S., had not threatened to revoke the team’s lease. You can learn all about him in the NFL Hall of Fame. You can also go to the Baseball Hall of Fame to learn about Tom Yawkey, who in addition to the remarkable feat of owning a team for 44 years without winning a World Series, was the last man to integrate his baseball team.

Well, owners protected owners. It’s always been that way. They would have protected Marge Schott too, protected her to the very end, except she wouldn’t keep quiet. She just loved to talk to the press. People tried to protect her, but she could not help herself. Baseball didn’t suspend and eventually push out Marge Schott for how she ran her team or even for her views. They suspended and pushed her out because she would not shut up about Hitler and African Americans and it finally was too destructive to baseball to overlook.

You know what they called Marge Schott in those days when they were tolerating her? “Eccentric.” That was the word the New York Times used in her obituary. That is the word after “owner and philanthropist” in her American National Biography. Eccentric.

And it’s a good word ... filled with a sort of whimsy. And it just so happens that’s the same word describing Donald Sterling in the headline of a major Sports Illustrated story. The SI cover was not as whimsical -- it featured three Clippers fans with bags over their heads and an underlined banner: “THE WORST FRANCHISE IN SPORTS HISTORY (and the man responsible)."

But the story itself had this headline: “Eccentric multimillionaire Donald Sterling has been a flaming success as an L.A. real estate mogul and a dismal failure as the owner of the Clippers.”

That was written in 2000 -- almost exactly 14 years ago.

Like with Marge Schott: The NBA knew what Donald Sterling was about. They knew. Over the last couple of days, you have no doubt seen the long litany of racism charges, sexual harassment charges and huge settlements floating in his wake. The league knew about Sterling. The players who cared to know, knew. Everybody who wanted to know, knew. He was just about the last guy you would want owning an NBA team.

MORE: Owning a professional team should be a privilege

But Sterling, like Schott, got into the club. And he did enough generous things to keep getting awards for his charitable work from groups like the NAACP (he was about to receive his second NAACP lifetime achievement award before the tapes came out). And the NBA was willing -- no, more than willing, they were happy -- to tolerate Sterling’s obvious history of narrow-mindedness and sleaziness so long as he didn’t embarrass the NBA in some deeper way. Hey, the guy was “eccentric!”

Thing is: We don’t live in the time of George Preston Marshall now. We don’t live in the time of Tom Yawkey. Heck, we don’t even live in the time of Marge Schott. Private is public now. Secrets are on Twitter now. What’s in the dark, much of the time, comes to a bright light. This is the lesson that corporations, leaders and sports leagues are learning way too slowly ... you can’t plan on keeping your skeletons locked in closets in this new age when every cell phone is a camera and every person has a Twitter account that can broadcast news to the world. The NBA should have known that there was every chance Donald Sterling’s “eccentricities” were going blow up in a big and humiliating way.

And look how it blew up: With presumably illegal tapes made by a spurned ex-mistress in something that looks like a setup. But it’s out there now. If you listen to the tapes, the thing that comes through is not so much Sterling’s racism as the feeling that he clearly has several screws loose. Here we have a man chastising his part-African American girlfriend because she put Magic Johnson photographs on her Instagram page ... and he’s black. Really? That’s not racism so much as first-degree cuckoo-dom. You can imagine the ghost of Marge Schott herself griping, “What’s wrong with this guy?”*

*Then again, this is a guy who changed his name to “Sterling” because, as he told one interviewer, “You have to name yourself after something really good.”

The point is: There was red flag after red flag after red flag with this guy for years. And the NBA did nothing about it. Nothing. About three quarters of NBA players are African-American, many of the rest are from other countries, this is a league that prides itself on being the most diverse in America.

And yet this guy -- THIS GUY who paid a huge settlement in an alleged housing discrimination case, THIS GUY who Elgin Baylor insisted once asked him to fill a team with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach” -- is the longest tenured owner in the league. THIS GUY: the only guy in America who would actually be upset because his mistress has Magic Johnson or Dodgers’ star Matt Kemp on her Instagram page.

MORE: Matt Kemp on Sterling - "Racism is old."

“I thought Matt Kemp is mixed, and he was OK just like me,” the mistress said at one point in perhaps the most soul-crushing exchange since the Jon Favreau answering machine barrage in “Swingers.”

“OK,” Sterling said.

“He’s lighter and whiter than me,” she said.

“OK,” he said.

“I met his mother,” she said.

“You think I’m a racist,” he said.

MORE: NBA commissioner declines to comment on potential sanctions on Sterling

It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, and it would be sad if it wasn’t so funny. The focus will be on the NBA's response now, of course, and you suspect that after their investigation they will suspend Sterling and pressure him to sell the team. It’s embarrassing now, very embarrassing, everyone in the NBA from LeBron James to Michael Jordan is screaming, the Sunday talk shows featured outrage from both right and left, President Barack Obama weighed in, oh yes, it’s embarrassing. They’ll do something now.

But the people who should be watching most closely are the people running leagues and business. Because Donald Sterling is hardly the only ticking time bomb out there. I remember when Marge Schott was getting punished by the league, a prominent executive in baseball told me: “She deserves to be suspended. But you know, we probably have 10 other owners who are more backward than Marge. Maybe more than 10.”

He wouldn’t tell me who they were. In those days you could keep that stuff quiet.