NBA's Ban On Sterling: Moral Justice Or Smart Business Move?

The NBA's ban on Clippers owner Donald Sterling has drawn approval all around. ESPN's Howard Bryant tells NPR's Scott Simon that with such heinous remarks, the league may not have had much choice.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we're joined now by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine from the studios of New England Public Radio. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: I get to back up Kareem? How do you like that? Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

BRYANT: That just made my day. You kidding?

SIMON: Certainly made my day to talk to him and to you - and to you, my friend.

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: We of course just heard Kareem - from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Why did it take privately, and maybe even illegally recorded conversations between a man and, I'll phrase this nicely, someone with whom...

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: ... He was involved, to bring attention to Donald Sterling's racist attitudes?

BRYANT: Well, you never know - you never know what the reason is going to be that brings somebody down. These things are always kind of fascinating when they happen. I think one thing everyone knew in the NBA was that Donald Sterling was a bad guy, however, he was an owner. And this is an owner's club. It's a private game. It's a closed game. And they really didn't believe that his views were enough to take him down. And, I know privately - everyone has told me inside of the game, that the NBA couldn't wait for this to happen, in a lot of ways to finally get rid of him.

SIMON: Let me raise the issue though about the tape because Mr. Abdul-Jabbar raised the issue. Is using a private tape, however it was obtained, is it - as Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks said in the first hours of the story - is it a slippery slope?

BRYANT: Well, I don't think that it was a slippery slope in terms of Mark Cuban's position because of the illegally recorded tape, necessarily. I think it was a slippery slope for him because once you begin to remove an owner because of his views and not his financial competence, then they're all exposed.

Then one day you could take down Mark Cuban. And you begin to give the commissioner a lot of power, and you begin to create precedent that they didn't want to set. In terms of the recording, sure, I think it's always difficult to consider information that's obtained illegally. However, here's the problem - we're not in a court of law. This is not...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: ...This is not a legal case. This is a business case. And the NBA had to deal with the optics of business and how it looked to their customers and for the image of their franchises way more than Donald Sterling's legal rights. From a legal standpoint, absolutely, there's all kinds of protections that Donald Sterling would have. But the NBA is looking at this saying, this is what somebody who owns one of our teams - who's the longest-tenured owner, this is how he feels about his players, his fan base? It unacceptable.

SIMON: Yeah. Did the Sterling situation have the effect of giving the players a stronger hand in shaping league affairs with all the accord between players of all teams and all backgrounds on this?

BRYANT: Well, I think the - the threat of a potential boycott on the biggest stage - an incredibly embarrassing moment to have the players walk out on the playoffs where the entire sporting world is watching this, I think it was just far too embarrassing for them to take the risk.

I think that the players had an opportunity, and they began to take it, I think, as this began to develop on last Saturday. The players went to play. I think Doc Rivers, the coach of the Clippers, he sounded very much like a basketball coach. But by Sunday and Monday, they sounded like African-American men who were really tired of the same stereotypes, the same reducing of their accomplishments to be treated like property and some thing to be fed and clothed and given things instead of earning them as professionals as Americans like to do.

And I think that by Tuesday, it was very, very clear that if Adam Silver hadn't acted decisively, you were going to see something that you had never seen before, which was the star players getting together and organizing a boycott of a sport, which we have not seen - and especially, during these times, where the players are so tethered to the league because of the money and because of the sponsors and the brands and the advertising and all of that.

SIMON: Let me see if you'll go for a question that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar kind of brushed aside. Is this an opportunity for the NBA to try and put a high profile - and I guess anybody rich enough to buy the team is high profile, minority owner in Los Angeles?

BRYANT: Well, I think the one thing that the NBA has that a lot of sports don't have - they have some minority representation. Michael Jordan owns the Bobcats. Magic Johnson is always a presence in the game, he used to have a stake in the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal has a stake in the Sacramento Kings. Sure, it's a great opportunity. But it's a money game. It's a money business. And if somebody out there has the capital to do what the - what the other millionaires do, then sure, I think they'll take them.

SIMON: OK. Howard Bryant from ESPN - and ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Thanks so much, as always. Talk to you soon.

BRYANT: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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