U.S. News

06.03.14

Mark Cuban Warns That Basketball Players Could Get the Sterling Treatment Next

The league has never kicked out someone for speech before, but the era of smartphones and political correctness may change that.

With the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise from Shelly Sterling to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer apparently on the league’s fast track, there really needs to be an assessment of what exactly happened to Donald Sterling and why he was banned from the National Basketball Association after a privately recorded conversation which was filled with racist and sexist remarks ended up on TMZ. How the tape ended up with Harvey Levin is being investigated by the Los Angeles County District Attorney but it surfaced and jolted the sports and pop culture world.

Dallas Mavericks’ owner Cuban sounded the alarm after the Sterling suspension.

"Again, there’s no excuse for his positions. There’s no excuse for what he said. There’s no excuse for anybody to support racism. There’s no place for it in our league, but there’s a very, very, very slippery slope.”

Last week in an interview with The Daily Beast, Cuban clarified but reaffirmed his warning.

“I wasn’t referring to other owners with the slippery slope comment,” he said. “But to all of us. Players are far more at risk than owners. We have lawyers. Lots of different interests. Players for the most part have one source of income. The risk isn’t the leagues. Those are collective bargaining agreement issues. The risk is social and fan, i.e. boycotts etc.”

“If Riley Cooper happened in the NBA this summer, it would be a horrible event.”

Riley Cooper is a National Football League player who was caught on tape last summer threatening to “fight every nigger” at a Kenny Chesney concert.

Cooper apologized and was barred from Eagles’ team activities for two days. He was fined by the NFL and agreed to counseling. Eagles players welcomed Cooper back after the apology and Cooper is now a member in good standing of the team to the point where he signed a new five-year in February.

Could the NBA throw a player out of the league for saying something caught by someone using their phone who either sells it or drops it off at a website that decides to just put it up?

In 2007, Tim Hardaway lost his gig promoting the NBA and its All-Star game after telling a radio interviewer that he hates gays.

The answer appears to be yes.

Article 35 of the National Basketball Association Constitution gives the NBA commissioner the power to hand down disciplinary actions (either suspension or fines less than $50,000) on players for on-court incidents, conduct that does not conform to standards of fair play, conduct that does not comply to federal or state laws, and conduct that is detrimental to the game of basketball or the league.

The NBA banned seven players in 1951 for being involved in college point shaving. Jack Molinas, a known gambler, was thrown out in 1954. Two players who crossed paths with him were not allowed to enter the league in 1966, Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown. Hawkins did play in the NBA after filing an antitrust action against the league that was settled and Brown played in the American Basketball Association. The league also permanently banned four players for drug usage.

But the league has never permanently thrown out an owner, a coach, a team executive, or a player for words.

Until Donald Sterling.

Michael McCann, the director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire doesn’t think a Riley Cooper situation happening this summer would have the same impact as Sterling’s remarks.

“In that scenario the league would have to use a different process, and one stipulated by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the National Basketball Players Association, “said McCann.” Cooper in that scenario would have the right to an independent review. Owners, in contrast, are not protected by the CBA when the league disciplines them, and have no right to independent review. 
  
“I think the underlying point of my remarks is that the NBA would not seek to oust Cooper both because he is protected by a players’ union and CBA and because his remarks did not trigger nearly the controversy caused by Sterling.” 

Leigh Steinberg, who has represented a large number of high profile National Football League players for decades, said Cooper’s teammates had an awful lot to do with Cooper’s situation being diffused.

“If the Eagles players thought he was a real racist, the players would not have wanted him around. Overt racism doesn’t go in sports,” said Steinberg.

Sterling had a long rap sheet of racism going back to 1983. There were two major lawsuits, one involving basketball and one involving a housing complex he owned.  In 2006, Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination where it was alleged that he refused to rent apartments in Beverly Hills and Koreatown to black people and people with children.

That case was settled in 2009. Sterling paid nearly $3 million but was not assigned any blame in the deal.

The Elgin Baylor case was about basketball and the NBA had enough grounds to at least censure him based on sworn testimony in court. Baylor, who was the Clippers general manager between 1986 and 2008 filed a wrongful termination against Sterling in 2009, claiming underpaid him and treated him “as a token because of his race” and age discrimination. Baylor testified that “(Sterling) wanted the team to be composed of ‘poor black boys from the South’ and a white head coach.”

Baylor lost in court because the jury thought he was fired because the team was bad.

NBA Commissioner David Stern never disciplined Sterling despite the two court cases. Sterling also tried not to pay fired coaches despite contract guarantees.

Sterling had a history. But players played and coaches coached despite Sterling’s history. He paid people and they took his money. It wasn’t until the TMZ website broke the story that the players and coaches rebelled.

Steinberg said the Sterling ban should give both sports and society in general something to think about “before we play gotcha.”

There are few incidents in sports in the past quarter of a century where players of executives got in trouble because of their words. On April 6, 1987, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Al Campanis, appeared on Nightline to discuss the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. When asked whether there was “still that much prejudice in baseball today,” Campanis responded, “I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that [blacks] may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” Campanis was out of a job by April 8.

Campanis never worked again in baseball despite the Seattle Mariners’ front office wanting to bring him in as an advisor in 1988. The Mariners decided against hiring him after the Seattle chapter of the NAACP threatened to boycott the club’s games.

In 1999, John Rocker, then a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, opened up to Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman about his experiences in New York. His candid remarks included his thoughts about Asian women, and his teammate Randall Simon, whom he described as a “fat monkey.” In 2000, Rocker was suspended by MLB, and by 2001 he was traded with his pitching in serious decline.

Rocker was insignificant in the scheme of things. There was never a call for a boycott of the games of the team that employed Rocker.

There have been a few incidents in basketball where saying the wrong thing ended up costing people jobs. In 2007, Tim Hardaway lost his gig promoting the NBA and its All-Star game after telling a radio interviewer that he hates gays. Hardaway apologized but Stern decided the services of the former NBA star was no longer needed. Hardaway worked hard to repair his imagine working with the gay and lesbian community and is presently employed as a scout by the Miami Heat.

Also in 2007, Micheal Ray Richardson lost his coaching job with the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons after he allegedly told a local newspaper reporter, “I’ve got big-time lawyers. I’ve got big-time Jew lawyers,” who would handle his suspension. During a Patroons playoff game, Richardson had screamed profanities and a gay slur at hecklers. Richardson found other coaching jobs but never in the NBA, he was been a career minor league head coach.

The religion issue also presented a problem for the NBA. In 2001, New York Knicks player Charlie Ward said some disparaging things about Judaism to a New York Times reporter that drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League. Ward also said that women journalists did not belong in the team’s locker room.

Stern issued a statement condemning Ward but took no other action even though some of what Ward said could have been offensive to Jews and women. Ward issued an apology and that was that.

Hardaway, Richardson and Ward were minor players, even insignificant but what happens if a megastar says something wrong?

In 2011, Kobe Bryant called a referee a “fucking fag” in the middle of a game in 2011 and was fined $100,000 for this remark. Kobe got docked but his career was never going to be in jeopardy.

Has the Sterling decision set a new standard or was the Sterling ban part of a perfect storm? A new commissioner in Adam Silver laying down the law to establish his credibility taking out an owner with a long record of racism and sexism in an isolated case or will the Sterling decision send a message throughout sports that words matter and you can be ousted for saying the wrong thing?

There seems to be a slight movement in that direction.

The National Football League is taking steps to penalize players who use the N-word on the field and will penalize a team when the word is used if officials catch it. The league through is vigorously defending the use of the name Redskins in Washington though. One slur is not good, while another is fine because the league has not lost any money in a consumer boycott of the name.

Sterling is more than likely an isolated case. The leaked taped to TMZ might have really cost the league some money if sponsors did decide to leave over the racist (and sexist) remarks. The league worked out a deal with Shelly Sterling and the team was sold. There will be no player revolt, no customer walk out, the marketing partners will choose to stay or leave depending on whether sponsorship makes sense, and the Clippers franchise will try to engage Fox’s regional sports channel and Time Warner’s regional sports channel in L.A. in a bidding war for the team’s cable TV rights.

The Donald Sterling scandal has greased the slippery slope and the next player who comes barreling down won’t be as handled as gingerly as Cooper, Rocker, or Kobe.