Stern, NBA must explain silence

By R.E. Graswich

Consider the nightmare: You devote your career to building an organization that celebrates diversity and honors the human mosaic. Meanwhile, one of your bosses is a racist.

Do you ignore it? Do you take action? Do you cover it up? Do you express disgust in private but remain publicly silent for the “good” of the organization?

Such is the reality of David Stern, the recently retired NBA commissioner. As bizarre revelations of a bigotry-infused conversation pull Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling into the abyss, the complicity of Stern and the NBA hierarchy is an open question.

On the most basic level, the recording of Sterling and his former girlfriend, released by the gossip website TMZ, presents little more than a pathetic argument between a confused elderly man and a woman who is coaxing him to make embarrassing statements.

The woman we hear knows the conversation is being recorded; the man doesn’t. He tries several times to terminate the discussion; she won’t let go and presses for detailed and repeated responses. She knows her man. And she knows he will throw the noose around his own neck.

At several points, the old man sounds befuddled, frustrated, out of touch with reality. He searches for words. He pleads. But the words he finds inevitably lead him down a path he knows well – animosity based on race, a deep hated of African-Americans.

By itself, the tape would be easy to dismiss. The circumstances are nothing new. Sterling is 80 years old and very wealthy. As we listen, he is separated from his wife and captivated by a much younger woman. He has given the girlfriend gifts worth millions of dollars. At one point in the conversation, the young woman reminds the old man that he loves her. He says yes.

The list of high net-worth families who have faced embarrassing entanglements between octogenarian patriarchs and young gold diggers is long. Donald Sterling is just one more silly old fool.

And this is where the larger implications begin. From the moment TMZ posted the recording, people familiar with the Clippers and Sterling began to nod their heads and note the team owner’s history of racist behavior.

The media recalled a race-based housing complaint against Sterling that was resolved with a $2.73 million payoff. They noted a discrimination suit filed by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, where Sterling prevailed.

The lawsuits and anecdotal testimonies demonstrate that if Donald Sterling isn’t an unapologetic racist, he has a nasty habit of sounding like one. If you pay attention to the Clippers and the Los Angeles real estate world, nothing in the TMZ recording shocks you.

Given Sterling’s history, it’s impossible for the NBA leadership, from other owners and Stern on down, to claim they weren’t aware of his attitudes. There’s too much evidence. The relationship between Sterling and the NBA runs too long for such beliefs to stay masked over three decades of league meetings, private lunches, conference calls, strategy sessions, retreats and nightcaps.

Sterling is the NBA’s senior owner. His Clippers stewardship dates back 33 years. He was among the owners who elevated Stern to the commissioner’s office in 1984. The other owners and Stern can say they never liked Sterling. But when it comes to public repudiations or sanctions, the NBA’s record speaks for itself: Thirty-three years of silence.

In his three decades as commissioner, Stern was credited with wielding more power than his job description allowed. While the media often claimed Stern “ran” the NBA, he guided rather than ran. His leadership was provided at the behest of his bosses, the individual team owners.

And Stern never took his bosses for granted. He maneuvered, persuaded, swore, praised, backed off and earned tremendous faith among them. But he never forgot who worked for whom.

Today, as punishments are being considered and the world listens to an old man’s ridiculous pleading with a girlfriend who posted innocuous photos online, the real questions are the ones facing 29 other NBA owners and David Stern:

What did you know and when did you know it? Why did you stay silent?

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R.E. Graswich