Will NBA owners fight Donald Sterling as hard as they have fought players?

Andy Lyons

NBA owners have a history of getting what they want. Will they even try this time?

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As a fraternity of business partners, NBA owners are a feisty bunch. They have agreed to shut down their multi-billion business thrice in the past 20 years all to win labor concessions from the players. Most recently (in 2011) they predicated the lockout with two years of increasingly doomsaying rhetoric. Once the stoppage began, the owners and their commissioner tried every legal trick in the book, up to and including a pre-emptive lawsuit to shop for a sympathetic judge.

The owners put thousands of employees on the streets to slash player salary despite the fact that, due to existing agreements, player salary hadn't been rising at a rate any faster than revenue and that it was non-salary expenses that had grown out of control. Instead of fixing that imbalance, the owners shut down the league to make up the cash somewhere else. That's a pretty tough fighting attitude. That's a neat little adventure into risk-taking.

When the fraternity of NBA owners and their hired ringleader -- the league commissioner -- want something, they tend to find a way to get it done. A cabal of small market owners wanted improved revenue sharing in 2011. They prolonged the lockout to ensure those concessions from the richer owners. The owners wanted an age minimum to prevent players from jumping from high school to the NBA. They got it (they now want to extend it, which should happen soon). The owners wanted to prevent players from wearing baggy clothes and urban fashion on sidelines when not playing or after games. They got the dress code.

Just about any time an owner wants a public subsidy for a new or updated arena, they get it. When they don't get it, the other NBA owners line up to approve relocation. The vote that killed the Seattle SuperSonics in 2008 was 28-2. When David Stern decided he wanted Sacramento to have a shot at keeping its team, he got it done despite threats from the Maloofs and it being a hard sell overall.

This is important: when Stern has wanted owners out -- from George Shinn to the Maloofs -- he worked the situations expertly and got the job done.

I have no question that several owners, maybe the majority of them, would like Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers and go rot in a dark hole. I have little doubt Adam Silver wants the same. The question at this point is how badly they want it. We've seen what the owners can do to players -- primarily Black players, mind you -- when they set their collective minds to it. They can win almost $3 billion in salary concessions over a decade. And they shut down the business to get it.

They don't have to shut down the business to get rid of Sterling. They just need to take some risks (like the threat of an anti-trust suit), use their guile and fight to get rid of him. It's not about money this time, it's about what the owners as a fraternity think is important. They thought the age minimum was important. They thought the dress code was important. They think money is important. They thought pension costs for NBA referees was important enough to lock them out!

What do the owners and Silver think getting rid of Sterling: a proven racist scumbag, a repeat sexual harasser, a constant embarrassment, a man creating a rather hostile environment for his employees, a destructive member of society, a total idiot and a crummy team owner in a wonderful market to boot. Do they think getting rid of that is important enough to fight for?

That's the question the owners will answer. Do they value not having an open racist among them more than they value some legal fees and a little discomfort? How they respond to this issue will tell us a helluva lot more about them than their actions on money issues do.

Remember; in American Needle vs. the NFL, the NBA argued in an amicus briefing that the league is not 30 distinct businesses for competitive purposes, but rather one centralized business competing against all other entertainment businesses. If NBA owners really believe that, they should have no problem heading back to court to argue they have the right to force Sterling out.

After determining the authenticity of the recording, if the NBA owners walk softly and eventually throw up their hands -- in other words, if the NBA does now what it's done about Sterling for the past decade -- we'll know how seriously they take the issue. And we'll judge them as cowards accordingly.

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