NBA could make it easy for Sterling, or it could make it hard

Posted: May 16, 2014

ON A SCALE of 1 to 10, the NBA's wish that it could make the Donald Sterling story just go away is at 1,000.

Each day, somebody else has something to say in reaction to the crashing dominoes Sterling set off when his racially offensive comments were revealed.

On Tuesday night, it was NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson telling CNN's Anderson Cooper we should "pray" for Sterling.

Johnson's "exclusive" interview was in response to the "exclusive" interview "Anderson Cooper 360" aired on Monday, during which Sterling erroneously said the former Los Angeles Lakers star has AIDS, and questioned what he has done to help minorities - other than reportedly investing more than a billion dollars into businesses and education programs, community service and outreach programs in minority communities through his foundation and capital ventures.

Late in his interview, Johnson offered advice to Sterling that the NBA should also take note of: "You're fighting a battle you can't win."

Johnson is correct.

Not only does the NBA have a contractual provision that allows for dissolving of a franchise if 75 percent of the owners vote that way; it has a war chest funded by 29 other billionaires, should Sterling choose to fight his ban for life and $2.5 million fine.

This isn't a morality play by the NBA. It is a business decision being made by a global multibillion-dollar industry hiding behind the smoke and mirrors of being a morality play.

Even though those who defend Sterling on the basis of the First Amendment are displaying a disturbingly ignorant understanding of one of our basic rights as Americans, the NBA understands it could end up on the bad side of freedom of speech and expression issues.

Sterling has the right to say what he wants, but people have the freedom to respond. Negative comments and protest in reaction to Sterling are all legal expressions of speech.

In fact, that is a true demonstration of what the First Amendment was designed for.

So when players and fans threatened to exercise their First Amendment rights by boycotting playoff games, the conglomeration called the National Basketball Association, by its bylaws, had to respond in a manner that protected its business interests.

The NBA knew a playoff boycott would devastate its brand name.

The players, who create the product the NBA offers, and the fans, who consume the product the NBA offers, apparently will settle for nothing less than Sterling's ouster as Clippers owner.

The NBA could not risk its fan base extending a protest to all NBA franchises. Just as some did with Sterling, corporate partners would drop away from the NBA for fear of becoming collateral damage.

Do you really think Sixers majority owner Josh Harris and the other owners will risk their percentage of the billions raked in annually for Sterling - a guy who is being scorned as a racist?

But Sterling might not be thinking logically. He doesn't need the money he'd get from selling the Clippers. The octogenarian billionaire wants to keep the "big-shot" identity he gets from being one of only 30 folks to own a NBA franchise.

He might fight to keep that status.

While that would not be a preferred battle, the NBA could stomach it.

The NBA's coldly brutal business strategy would be to fight Sterling until he sells or expires from old age or the cancer he recently was reported to have.

Any and every court decision against the NBA would be appealed for years, until Sterling was eliminated from the picture because of either financial or natural causes.

The NBA would have no other recourse. It would be the only course of action players and fans would find acceptable.

The current public sentiment is what Johnson told Cooper: "Adam Silver, our commissioner of the NBA, did a wonderful job of banning [Sterling] for life. Now the board of governors has got to do [its] job."

This would be a scorched-earth battle waged by the NBA.

The court proceedings could take years, but the destruction of the Clippers would begin immediately.

The first move I could see would be Silver giving all current Clippers players, coaches and front-office staff the right to be released from their contracts, so as to pre-empt some agent suing the league for forcing his client to remain in a hostile work environment.

Imagine if coach Doc Rivers walked and franchise players Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan followed. Leaving would be no financial risk to them, because they would get the same money playing somewhere else.

No top-flight free agents would join the Clippers, because of peer pressure and the potential loss of endorsements for voluntarily chasing what would be viewed as Sterling's "blood money."

I also could see the league proclaiming that any players drafted by the Clippers while Sterling remained owner would not have their contract rights exclusively owned by the club. They could become rookie free agents with the right to sign anywhere, something other owners would go for, especially those picking outside the lottery.

The Clippers would get players, but would have to overpay for mediocre talent with little fan appeal.

The NBA would effectively use league policy to return the Clippers to their status as a barren, wasteland franchise. Even the most loyal fans would jump ship. Hollywood and music stars could not tolerate being supporters of a franchise owned by a perceived racist.

That actually would hurt Sterling, because keeping that respect as owner is what he wants most.

He doesn't want to return his legacy to that of being the clown owner of the worst-run franchise in league history.

But he could not avoid it.

If the fight happens, it will become a no-lose gambit for the NBA.

The league just wishes Sterling would realize that and sell before the next edition of "AC360."


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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