The instant that L.A. Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling's racist rant hit the airwaves, the cry went up far and wide that Sterling must go. There was virtually no dissent from the demand that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver make that happen. He did. Silver's lifetime ban of Sterling from the league, a maximum fine levied on him, and a vow to shove him out of Clipper ownership was universally applauded. It seemed to send the message that the NBA will come down hard on racism.
But that still doesn't explain why Sterling lasted as long as he did when his loose-hinged bigotry had to be the worst-kept secret on the planet, nor does it explain why he's still around and likely will be around the NBA and sports until he decides that he doesn't want to be. The starting point is not his fabulous wealth, his influence or a drop-dead media, PR and charitable machine that's second to none. Put simply, Sterling was embedded in the NBA and sport by dint of longevity and a team ownership structure that confers unassailable, emperor-like powers on those who own the teams.
The NBA is a prime example. There's no one owner who's a kingmaker in the league. The wealth and power is spread almost evenly around. In fact, it can rightly be said that each NBA team owner not only owns his team but owns a big and crucial piece of the NBA pie. This insures that no one owner has an unfair advantage over any other owner. The spread of the wealth, and with it control among the owners, was sealed in stone in 2013 when the NBA's 13-member planning committee radically restructured its team revenue sharing plan, shifting a big chunk of the revenue from the big-name, big-money, marquee teams to the smaller fries.
The estimate then was that that would plop nearly $20 million into each team's coffers. This was a godsend to the league's poorer teams. The aim at the top was to insure financial stability for the weaker brothers. The end game was to further insure that all owners had a major say in the running of the NBA's business. The less well-heeled owners were unabashed in their praise of the deal; as one owner put it, "we have the same goals and aspirations." Translated: All teams and their owners are now on an equal plane in the NBA, and that means no owner can one-up another.
Sterling could hardly be called a charity case among the NBA mega-owners. And though the Clippers were for decades a laughing stock, second to the Lakers in the L.A. market, he benefited mightily from the new arrangement. It guaranteed that his already-large voice in the NBA's governance and decision making would remain secure.
He had a few other trump cards to guarantee that. Advertising, sponsorship and TV revenue is huge for the teams. They are all intimately intertwined in the league's planning, operations, and strategy for growth. Sterling's coffers were steadily filled by cash from the some of America's biggest and best-known corporations: Coke, T-Mobile, American Express, Budweiser, Toyota -- the list goes on and on.
Another is Sterling's money and the company that it and he keeps. He's a multibillionaire, and so are a good number of the other NBA owners. In fact, six of Sterling's big-money circle of NBA owners have fortunes that top $5 billion. Taken together, the 14 NBA owner billionaires have a combined net wealth of $76 billion.
But the real numbers are in what a team will fetch on the open market. The low-side estimate on the Clippers' value on an open-market sale is $475 million. The high side is $700 million. The truth is that no one really knows what it would ultimately go for. That's Sterling's final trump card. He still defiantly says he won't sell no matter what the commissioner and the other NBA owners demand.
It will take a well-heeled knot of investors to plop down the kind of cash needed for the purchase of the team, if and when he does sell. Despite the loud calls for Sterling to get out of the business, and Silver's vow to do everything within his very limited power to try to push him out the door, the call is still Sterling's.
Given the tight, cozy, and complex powerhouse lock that Sterling, along with the other owners, has had over control of the NBA for decades, this won't easily change. That's not to say that Sterling can continue to roam free, snub his nose at the world, or even continue to laugh all the way to the bank while everyone takes potshots at him. He's hopelessly tainted, and damaged goods, and a now pariah to boot. That's a price he'll pay for being the latest poster boy for unwashed, naked bigotry. He just may not have to pay the other price of being an ex-NBA owner anytime soon.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour, heard weekly on the nationally broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.