What I would have given to be a fly on the wall during the media prep session Donald Sterling presumably had prior to his interview with Anderson Cooper last night. I say presumably because based on his performance, it's entirely possible he skipped that step.
Several friends and clients have asked me over the past couple of weeks if I've received a cry-for-help phone call from Sterling's people. Thankfully, no. Like cigarettes and diet soda, there's just no positive talking points you can come up with. And besides, who wants to be an accomplice in trying to make something so toxic seem benign?
But there he was, slumped in his primetime hot seat, clinging to an ill-conceived game plan somebody must have given him. There was a hint of the I'm-just-a-pathetic-old-man defense coupled with a jealous-and-horny-guy-not-responsible-for-saying-crazy-things rationale. I've seen smarter defensive strategies used by the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and if you're a Knicks fan, you know that's not saying much.
His so-called apology landed with all the finesse of a brick clanging off a backboard. But just when you thought Sterling couldn't disgrace himself any more in this spectacle, he plunged to an all-time low by spraying some venom in Magic Johnson's direction. Maybe I could understand taking a swipe at Dennis Rodman, but Magic? Really? No sane media strategist could have ever suggested that Sterling use this opportunity to question Magic's role model image and commitment to improving the lives of minority children, especially coming from the new poster child for bigotry. In doing so, Sterling broke one of the primary rules of issuing an apology: don't try to take others down with you. Don't blame others, don't qualify your misdeeds, don't try to justify them, just fall on your sword with one clean thrust. The bizarre, ad-libbed attack on Magic completely overshadowed any possible focus on his contrition. By indulging Anderson Cooper's question about Magic, Sterling ended up doing more harm than good.
As he scrunched and contorted his face in an attempt to look remorseful and humbled, the narrow slits of his eyes squeezed completely shut, depriving us the opportunity to peer through the window to his soul. That certainly didn't help his credibility factor. His phrasing was also oddly narcissistic, "I'm so apologetic," and "I'm apologizing," said in the tone of voice that is usually accompanied by "what more do you want from me?" Sterling kept asking over and over whether he shouldn't be entitled to one mistake. From his tone, you would think he's been an ardent NAACP supporter for decades and just had one non-lucid moment sparked by jealousy. Ask around the league though, and you'll be hard pressed to find one story, one example of good deeds or generosity Sterling displayed towards anyone of color in any of his business ventures. If any did exist, they most certainly would have been used to counterbalance the numerous stories of him running his team like a southern plantation.
Sterling's biggest problem was not one of timing, the failure to get out in front of the story and control the narrative. It was that he had no narrative, no positive, persuasive examples of inherent goodness. In light of that, the only good media advice for Donald Sterling would have been to stay out of sight and keep his mouth shut.