Congressional Democrats said Tuesday that the NBA’s swift response to racially charged comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was a strong first step, but league limitations might not discourage similar behavior in the future.
The lawmakers, including several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), suggested the league should wield more authority over individual owners — including more power to strip ownership — while maintaining the capacity to levy larger fines for racially insensitive behavior.
“Some of the powers they have over players should be applicable to owners as well,” Thompson said. “So I think the league will have to strengthen their standing for owners so that, going forward, they will have to look at other sanctions, including forcing the sale of the franchise.”
The NBA on Tuesday banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million after the long-time Clippers owner allegedly chastised his girlfriend for associating with African-Americans.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly said in an audio recording published Friday by gossip website TMZ. “Do you have to?”
In announcing the penalties, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday that the speaker is, indeed, Sterling, and Silver will move immediately to encourage the NBA board of governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, which would require a three-fourths vote by the league’s owners.
The lifetime ban will prevent Sterling, the team’s owner since 1981, from attending practices or games. He would also be barred from doing any business involving the team or being involved in league activity, including board meetings. The ban is separate, though, from the prospective sale of the team and has already gone into effect.
Yet, some analysts on Tuesday questioned whether the league has the power to strip Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers based just on his comments, even with a three-fourths vote. They predicted there would be an extended legal battle, especially as Sterling is reportedly vowing to keep the team.
Veteran sportscaster Jim Gray told Fox News that he spoke with Sterling just before Silver’s press conference, and the Clippers owner said the team is not for sale.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), another CBC member, said the lifetime ban was “a fair response to an insulting conversation,” but he characterized the fine as “a pittance” for someone of Sterling’s wealth. According to Forbes, the team’s estimated worth is $575 million.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), whose district is home to the Staples Center, where the team plays, said the speed with which the league reacted is “a sign that the NBA gets it.”
“I don’t know if [the penalty] is … tough enough, but it’s a sign that they know what they’re dealing with, and they can’t let this kind of stuff happen,” Becerra said. “We’ll see how it plays out, but just giving this guy, this billionaire, a little petty fine and leave it at that? I mean, let him talk to his players and see what they think.”
Black lawmakers in California’s state legislature, meanwhile, are already urging fans to boycott Clippers games. The team is still in the playoffs and is a title contender.
“By boycotting the games, we will be sending a nonverbal message to not only Donald Sterling but to the NBA that racist comments and views have no place in a league that is 76.3 percent African-Americans players and 81 percent players of color,” the California Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, warned that such a boycott would also harm fans and players.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) said a fan boycott would be inappropriate. And Butterfield — whose son-in-law, Dahntay Jones, played in the NBA for roughly a decade — agreed.
“I understand it from a player’s point of view,” Butterfield said. “This is their job. This is their future. This is how they support their families. And so the players don’t need to be in a state of uncertainty.”
President Obama has also entered the debate, condemning the remarks during a weekend news conference in Malaysia.
“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk,” Obama said. “And that’s what happened here.”
Thompson, for his part, is predicting that Sterling’s response to the NBA’s penalties will dictate a great deal about how the saga will end.
“A lot in terms of what the public might do depends on his response to it,” Thompson said. “If he comes [back] with something stupid and insensitive … I think he puts the whole franchise at risk.”
Erik Wasson contributed.