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Managing a Sterling Communications Debacle

My former business partner Dan Callahan has often said to clients, “I can get you on the front page of the New York Times if you really want. You might not like it, but I can get you there.”

I was reminded of this, of course, as the racism debacle surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling erupted this week, and it’s a controversy that will not end anytime soon.

Donald Sterling debacleNot only are major National Basketball Association sponsors like Kia, State Farm, Red Bull and Mercedes-Benz fleeing the Clippers in response, but the team’s deeply respected head coach, Doc Rivers, has left open the option of leaving the team if Sterling isn’t dramatically disciplined, while many other influential voices are insisting on an ownership change. 

The reality is, however, that it’s just not that simple. Consider what former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent told USA Today.

“It’s a very tricky political problem, as well as a legal problem,” he said. “These actions are not criminal. Nobody committed a felony. There were statements that were abhorrent, very silly or stupid … In this case, nothing was illegal so you can’t require him to sell the business.”

Indeed, MLB dealt with similar issues, particularly with former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who made several public comments against African-Americans, Jews, Asians, and gay people.

So the question is, what does the NBA do to quell the outrage, keep the Clippers financially solvent, and ensure its coaches and players don’t walk out the door?

First, we need to hear from Sterling whether the allegations are true. Yes, we are all under the impression that the voice on the now-infamous recording is, in fact, his. But we need to essentially here the man admit it, sincerely apologize, and suggest that he will seek to fundamentally change his behavior moving forward.

Second, the league cannot force Sterling to sell the team although it says it now will (reportedly the league has previously tried to do this during the Clippers’ losing days). But as the NBA announced Tuesday, it had no other choice than to permanently banish Sterling from the organization. It was a sound start a la the banishment received by late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (the “lifetime ban” ultimately lasted two years), and the NBA additionally fined him $2.5 million that will be donated to organizations dedicated to anti-discrimination and tolerance.

Third, now that Sterling has been sent to the showers, Rivers must stand up and demonstratively say he is staying put, as well as the team’s standout players Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Keep in mind, this is not just an external matter amongst fans and sponsors. This is an employee communications issue and the team must remain an attractive destination for the league’s largely black player populous.

Fourth, the team should create a scholarship fund for minority high school students in Los Angeles.  

Banning Sterling was a sound beginning for the NBA but the debacle is not yet tidied up. The public and players need to hear from him, hear from his prominent black employees, and do something long term that serves as a reminder to the organization’s commitment to ensure it does not happen again. 

(s_bukley / Shutterstock.com)

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