Donald Sterling and how to fire an owner

Kevin Winter

The NBA was willing to tolerate Donald Sterling when he was merely an unsightly cold sore. When he became a cancer, that wasn't possible anymore. Maybe there's a lesson in this.

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It is both exceedingly difficult and strikingly easy to own a professional sports team. The difficult part is finding enough ready capital to own a team. The easy part is everything else.

Teams cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars; better teams in bigger markets will sell for a billion and more. You do not come to own a team by investing responsibly or hitting Powerball. You come to own a team by dint of extremely fortunate heredity, or petroleum, or vast and fortunate real estate holdings, or by cashing out at the idiot zenith of some bubble or other. The rich are not like you and me, and they aren't really like the people who own sports teams, either.

These elites run to flab in general, but their rhetoric is, in the steroidal Galt-ian mode of the moment, cartoonishly muscular. Competition and more competition, wealth won through combat, eating what one kills and compromise as a sort of death and so swaggeringly on. And yet the walled-in microeconomy that these heroes of capital make for themselves is a feather-cushioned utopia, enabled by a sort of feudalism on the ground, protected by antitrust exemptions and dubious nonprofit status from above, and defined throughout by institutionalized semi-collusion and the gentlemanly socialism of revenue sharing.

Donald Sterling Fallout

Here is a heaven of shared ends, socialized risk and privatized profit. Everything in its right place, unchallenged and unchallengeable, and so very easy.

So easy, in fact, that it took three decades for a clownish scoundrel like Donald Sterling to screw it up.

During his 30 years in this dream manor, Sterling treated everyone involved in every team-related transaction like garbage. This was, it's worth noting, still better than he treated the people that lived in the properties that made him rich: the various minorities he cheated, bullied, exploited and immiserated; the outgunned authorities he stiff-armed, ignored and finally bought off through history-making discrimination settlements that spared him the punishment he richly deserved. All these disgraces played out in public, in high Sterling-ian fashion, and he sat courtside all the while. Waste chased waste, and it was awful and sad and seemed painfully permanent.

Everyone knows this, and anyway we've been over it. But we were re-reminded during Sterling's astonishing interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on Monday night that Donald Sterling is the worst. Not merely the least among the seething desert creatures and inheritance-powered Randroid mutants and feral facelifted petrocrats that are his blundering peer group, but perhaps the most queasily representative and lividly infected wad that the last half-century or so of American culture has ever coughed up. The worst, full stop.

Sterling is casually brutal in his dealings with others and floridly sentimental about himself. He is pitiless and self-pitying. He is vicious and he is vain, each feeding the other. He exploited everything and everyone he could for an appallingly long time, taking breaks here and there to throw himself award ceremonies honoring his good works. That's Donald Sterling being Donald Sterling, and we're apparently somehow not quite done with him yet.

But gripping and gross as it is, Sterling's specific odiousness is not really the point.

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's incorrect to say that Donald Sterling doesn't matter, but not because he's still sucking around on television. What Sterling thinks about Magic Johnson or the relative charitable tendencies of black people and Jewish people, about the media and especially himself -- these are meaningless things. They're still shocking in their ugliness and ignorance, of course, and the peerlessly loathsome Sterling, spitting his sleepy-smug idiocies with such dewy pomposity, is startling in his own right. It's instructive, in a way, to see the rotten undergirding of the usual, semi-subtle racist ubiquities -- the blinkered bullshit about A Failure Of Values In The Inner City, the sub-intimations that never quite become actionable assertions, the endless and heartbreakingly glib false equivalencies -- revealed in all their reeking and be-barnacled grossness. Sterling's low-tide mind has shown us that.

But however much his pissy maunderings do or don't represent similar shitty opinions held by people who aren't Donald Sterling, they are finally just Donald Sterling's. Awful though they are, they're not really remarkable. What matters more than the terrible recorded thoughts of this terrible person are the consequences that have followed. Ignorant, hateful old men are not new or unique among the cohort that owns sports teams. Their actions leading to actual discipline, on the other hand, is.

Ownership confers a strange and strong sort of impunity, and it tends disproportionately to confer it on people who really need it. These can be actual criminals like Jimmy Haslam and Zygi Wilf, venal incompetents like James Dolan, Jerry Jones and the Maloofs or asset-stripping hustlers like Tom Hicks and Frank McCourt. Of those, only McCourt was forced to sell his team as the result of official action from the league, and for something like the same reasons Sterling is being forced out now. That is, not because of mismanagement or public bad acts, but because he'd begun to impact various important bottom lines.

It's unsurprising that this doesn't happen more often, given that commissioners work for their league's owners and people generally don't get to fire their bosses. But it's also unsurprising because of the broad -- and very much by design -- lack of accountability that goes along with owning a team.

The counter-narrative among those reflexively rallying to a billionaire in jeopardy, such as it exists, is that They took Sterling's Team from him simply because he said a bunch of ignorant things in private. You are supposed to imagine jackbooted PC Police officers wrestling Sterling from his office. They rudely knock over his many Humanitarian Of The Year trophies and Least Racist Serial Violator Of Federal Discrimination Laws plaques as they escort him from the premises. If you are inclined to see Sterling as a victim for whatever reason, this is what you see: a man being punished by an image-conscious league for the stupid, awful things he said.

And that is actually pretty much correct, although that outcome is less sinister or slippery-sloped than it is pragmatic. When Donald Sterling was only a prolific, predatory and extremely successful bigot in matters not related to his team -- when he systematically and repeatedly discriminated against minorities in managing the real estate empire that made him rich enough to own a NBA team, say -- he was able to do so in relative anonymity and with the impunity to which he had become accustomed. When Sterling was a bigot in matters relating to the running of the team, as alleged in former GM Elgin Baylor's discrimination suit, the NBA deemed it a matter for the court.

But when he was publicly racist in this clownishly outright and undeniable a fashion -- when he spoke in the and-here's-another-thing-about-the-blacks terms that constitute something like objective racism -- Sterling became something more and different than an embarrassment. He became so toxic as to threaten the league's product. Players would not play for him, coaches would not coach for him, sponsors would not have their logos seen at his team's games or during those games' commercial breaks. This is still happening, as players discuss possible action to ensure that Shelly Sterling does not inherit her estranged husband's team.

The NBA was willing to tolerate Sterling when he was an unsightly cold sore But could not and would not abide him when he became a cancer.

It doesn't seem quite right, in a sense, for Sterling to be punished like this, for this, after skating away clean on actions that were objectively worse. It's worth considering that Sterling's decades of proven crimes against anonymous minorities in slum housing carried less moral weight, somehow, than his rancid whimpering about Magic Johnson.

But if this is perverse, the executive action that resulted is plainly pragmatic. The NBA was willing to tolerate Sterling when he was an unsightly cold sore. This is embarrassing enough because there they were with this gnarly sore on their lip for 30 years, and more so because this particular cold sore had developed the ability to repeatedly violate the Fair Housing Act. But the league could not and would not abide Sterling when he became a cancer.

Of course, Sterling was always that. But there is something encouraging about the fact that Sterling's punishment happened at all. It's not quite right to say that Sterling was toppled by a popular movement, but given how and why his ownership of the team became so rapidly and thoroughly untenable, it's not fully false, either. It suggests that this sort of change is possible, if those with leverage -- crucially and sadly, this is not fans, but sponsors and especially players -- agree on enough being enough.

If we haven't learned anything truly new about Donald Sterling during the course of his last long humiliation, we have at least learned how an owner comes to be fired. These are extraordinary circumstances, and Sterling is an extraordinary pustule, but there is something bracing and tenuously hopeful about this all the same. It would be nice, of course, if Sterling had been subject to some -- any -- accountability before this point, whether from his fellow owners or the league. It would be extremely nice if fans could have the same sort of impact as a displeased corporate sponsor.

Still, justice is justice, and this is that. Donald Sterling doesn't have to apologize; no one is really listening to him anymore, anyway. But he does have to leave, and that's good. Maybe it's a start.

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