Sterling might slip away quietly after all

Clippers owner Donald Sterling. (Danny Moloshok/AP)

WE MIGHT YET be spared the spectacle of the defense of racism by a horde of legal vultures.

Fallen Clippers owner Donald Sterling, fined, banned and soon to be forced to sell his team, now reportedly is facilitating a sale through his wife, who seeks to retain a share of the team. The NBA might still force the sale on its teams if Sterling's are unacceptable; but, at the very least, Sterling appears willing to let the cancer he has become be excised.

If that is the case, certainly it will speed healing on his team, in the league and among those around the country who care about the issue and the story.

It's almost too bad.

Sterling's attorneys had said they would fight the fine and the forced sale.

Such a fight would have kept alive the conversation about institutional racism and entrenched bigotry. That might not be all bad, considering this is a society that continually convinces itself racism is less of a problem than it really is.

Such a fight also would have been legally fascinating.

Sterling said he was recorded without his consent, which is a crime in California. In a suit, could Sterling challenge the use of an illegally obtained recording as the impetus to force him from the league? Could the league introduce the recording as evidence? How would the tenets of the NBA constitution stand up in court? How long would the case it drag on? Would it outlast Sterling, whose health reportedly is failing?

Such a fight would have been sociologically riveting.

What reaction would fans have to the Clippers, the most exciting team in the league? Would the team, seen sympathetically in the immediate wake of the scandal, be booed on the road? Would fans stay away from home games to rob Sterling of profits?

Such a fight would be landmark concerning workplace rights and contractual obligations.

Would Clippers coach Doc Rivers, perhaps the best coach in the league, continue to work if Sterling were his boss, perhaps citing a hostile workplace culture? Would free agents consider coming to the Clippers? Would stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin refuse to play as long as Sterling was the owner? Could they be forced to play?

Would Microsoft workers have walked out if Bill Gates were a bigot?

If Sterling stayed, would other players boycott the league? Heat star LeBron James, currently the face of the league, let it be known earlier this month he would lead the players in sitting out until the Sterling family no longer owned the Clippers. LeBron might live in Miami, but he works for Sterling, too; the NBA owners share revenues.

Sterling's apparent willingness to sell implies that a swift resolution to the matter is at hand. Talk of the nation's racism problem will recede. The legal questions will go unanswered, the fans and players and coaches will be mollified.

Perhaps the player boycott was what turned the trick for the Sterling camp. That sort of unrest would fracture the foundation of the NBA, which Sterling has helped build into a powerful international brand. If he has been sincere about anything, he has been sincere about how much he cherishes his team and the league.

Not that his love for the game absolves his reprehensible world view. A recording of Sterling's racist comments made in private to a much younger woman named V. Stiviano, apparently Sterling's consort, surfaced last month, which spurred the NBA's swift reaction.

Sterling cemented his image, if not his fate, May 12 during a pathetic interview on CNN, in which he asserted that Jews like him help Jews, while blacks don't help blacks; which, of course, is a blatantly racist statement.

Sterling also painted successful businessman, Dodgers owner and philanthropist Magic Johnson as self-serving, and, further, he categorized Johnson as morally inferior because Johnson is HIV-positive.

Stiviano took pictures with black men and posted them on social media, which Sterling addressed on the recording. One of the men was Johnson. Another was Matt Kemp, the Dodgers' star centerfielder. Kemp last month said he "felt sorry" for his friends on the Clippers . . . as well as for Sterling, whom Kemp sees as a prisoner of his own biases.

So, on the day Sterling said he would surrender his interest in the team to his wife, coincidence conspired to bring his principal victims' organization to Philadelphia to face the Phillies.

Unfortunately, Kemp yesterday was in no mood to discuss the sports world's most significant drama in years. In a pregame, closed-door meeting with manager Don Mattingly, Kemp learned he was being benched for at least last night's game, if not longer.

Shelly Sterling owns 50 percent of the team and still wants a stake in it, even if the bulk of the club is sold to other investors. The NBA believes it can exclude her because she was implicated in past missteps by Sterling. And, while the Sterlings claim to be estranged, the NBA reportedly does not believe this to be the case.

Until further notice, the NBA owners still plan to meet June 3 to vote on whether to force Sterling to sell. Three-quarters of the owners must agree, though multiple reports contend that there is no question Sterling will be forced to sell.

The NBA issued this statement yesterday: "We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3."

However, league commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday said that, if the Sterlings decided to sell the team without the NBA's intervention, he would welcome such a development.

Oprah Winfrey headlines one group reportedly with interest in buying the team.

Magic Johnson also has said his group might bid on the Clippers, as well.

That would be an interesting negotiation.



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