Donald Sterling: How Much We Knew

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Donald Sterling: How Much We Knew
May 13, 2014

Long before the TMZ tape in which he made racist remarks about African-Americans to his girlfriend, the public outcry, the warm-up jackets piled in protest and the lifetime ban, Donald Sterling was known to many simply as the real estate mogul who owned the hapless Los Angeles Clippers.

The national media anointed his franchise the worst in sports history. Local news outlets weren’t any kinder. To the extent Sterling received any press in the crowded Los Angeles media market, it was almost always for the wrong reasons. Columnists and sports radio hosts skewered him as the penny-pinching basketball owner who benefitted from the NBA’s luxury tax, and reaped the rewards of lucrative arena and television deals without reinvesting in the on-court product.

Even as the Clippers morphed into a championship contender, Sterling remained the tight-fisted villain who sat courtside at Staples Center – a stark contrast to the other NBA owner who shared the building, beloved late Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

While the dominant narrative focused on Sterling’s failed stewardship of the Clippers, another storyline emerged: troubling allegations of racist comments and racial discrimination.

Statements attributed to Sterling about minority tenants – Hispanics “smoke, drink and just hang around the building” and black tenants “smell and attract vermin” – became part of the public record. So too did claims of sexual harassment and housing discrimination, thanks to a string of lawsuits against Sterling. Among the most noteworthy:

  • 2003 – A housing rights group and tenants accused Sterling of “discriminatory statements and housing practices.” The federal lawsuit alleged that Sterling tried to drive black and Hispanic tenants out of his properties in Koreatown. The case was dismissed in 2005 after a confidential settlement that a judge described as “one of the largest ever obtained in this type of case.” Sterling paid nearly $5 million in attorney’s fees to plaintiffs, according to court documents.
  • 2006 – The U.S. Department of Justice sued Sterling’s rental company for housing discrimination against blacks, Hispanics and families with children. The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that Sterling refused to rent to potential black tenants in Beverly Hills. The case was reportedly settled in 2009 for $2.73 million, said to be the largest of its kind.
  • 2009 – Elgin Baylor, the longtime Clippers general manager and executive vice president, filed a wrongful termination suit, alleging employment discrimination based on race and age. The Hall of Fame NBA player claimed that Sterling had a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” and embraced a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” with a white head coach and a team of black players from the South. Baylor later dropped the racial discrimination claim and lost the lawsuit in 2011.

Then in late April, the now-infamous audio surfaced of Sterling’s disparaging comments about black athletes, prompting a flood of moral outrage in news coverage and on social media, followed by a backlash directed at those who treated the tape as a revelation.

  • NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time : “I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise…He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing.”
  • ESPN The Magazine senior writer Peter Keating:  “The most shocking thing about NBA Nation’s reaction to the recordings of Sterling’s racist rants is how many owners, players, media analysts and fans claimed they were shocked by his words.”
  • Sports editor Dave Zirin in The Nation: “Sterling’s racism is nothing new and should come as no surprise.”
  • Columnist E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post: “Why did it take this episode to force the hand of the NBA leadership and ignite the people in the stands?”

Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz said journalists “snoozed” on the Sterling story for years. Lawsuit settlements were “blips” on the radar, “most of us had little clue about the owner of the L.A. Clippers and his racist outlook” and “until TMZ obtained the don’t-bring-black-people-to-my games tape, no one much seemed to care – and that includes the national media.”

Kurtz’s accusation of journalistic malpractice in the Sterling saga is hardly new:

  • ESPN’s Bomani Jones (2006): “Neither the (2003 case), nor the more recent one, has qualified as big news…It’s not Sterling’s job to bring attention to his ethical transgressions. That’s the job of the media. And as it relates to Sterling, we have dropped the ball.”
  • Former LA Weekly writer Patrick Range McDonald (2008): “The Los Angeles print media weirdly gave their own billionaire what amounted to a free pass.”
  • Keating (2009): “The media have remained largely mum about Sterling too, apart from chronicling his dustups with [then head coach Mike] Dunleavy. Most sports beat writers don’t cover business issues, most business writers don’t cover sports, and most columnists stopped taking Sterling and the Clippers seriously years ago.
  • Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel (2009): “The media, which just last month went full force on the story of Rush Limbaugh becoming part of a potential NFL ownership group, has mostly ignored the [DOJ settlement] deal. So, where’s the outrage?”

Did the press, as writers have alleged for years, pay too little attention to Sterling’s off-court controversies?

Opinions vary among those who closely follow the Clippers and their owner. Patrick James, a staff writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network site ClipperBlog (and son of Los Angeles Times sports editor Mike James), said local news outlets reported on Sterling consistently and the national media paid some attention but could dismiss the story given the Clippers’ losing ways.

But Paul Teetor, who writes about the Clippers for LA Weekly, described the press coverage as “negligent.” McDonald, a freelance writer and former LA Weekly reporter who wrote a lengthy investigative piece on Sterling, said he was unimpressed with the quality of coverage and that the national media and local daily press “didn’t connect the dots very well.”

Bryan Curtis, a staff writer for Grantland who in the aftermath of the audio release wrote about press coverage of Sterling, said that when people ask why the news media didn’t pay more attention to the story, “what they really mean is why didn’t they get the outcome they wanted.

“It just depends on what you think is a good level of agitation – one column or one giant investigation per lawsuit.”

There have been far more of the former than the latter.

A review of news archives shows that coverage of Sterling’s off-court behavior was intermittent. Lawsuit filings and settlements prompted a flurry of short articles, columns and editorials in the Los Angeles press – from A1 to the sports page, where Sterling had long been a favorite target of Times columnists.

Some national news outlets seized the opportunity to bring attention to Sterling’s sordid past and call for increased coverage. In 2006, following news of the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit, ESPN’s Jones wrote a column (“Sterling’s Racism Should be News”) detailing Sterling’s legal troubles and controversial comments. National Public Radio aired an interview with USC professor Todd Boyd, an expert on race, media and sports, discussing Sterling’s “Inconsistent Approach on Race”.

In 2009, the year of the Sterling-DOJ settlement and the Baylor lawsuit, ESPN’s Keating wrote one of the definitive investigative pieces on Sterling based on interviews, depositions and court documents (“Uncontested: The Life of Donald Sterling”). Deadspin picked up on the story and dogged Sterling throughout the year, referring to him as “The Most Evil Man in Sports”. That same year, ESPN’s Jemele Hill and Yahoo Sports’ Wetzel admonished then-NBA Commissioner David Stern for staying silent on Sterling.

Keating said his 2009 Sterling investigation has received far more attention in recent weeks than it did after being published. He began reporting the piece after the DOJ lawsuit settlement but before Baylor announced his lawsuit.

“There was a crazy story simmering out there, and at the time I thought we were competing with other investigations to find out what happened and get the word out,” Keating said. “At the time it felt like a huge story.”

Keating said he was surprised that the Sterling controversies “didn’t break into the wider consciousness.”

Coverage of Sterling’s transgressions was typically short lived. Without new allegations – often coming years apart – or settlement payouts as news pegs, the focus largely returned to his failure as Clippers owner rather than his comments and actions off the court. Few investigative reports put Sterling under the spotlight.

That’s all changed in the weeks since Sterling’s latest comments triggered a national obsession. News outlets have dug into Sterling’s past, reexamined the lawsuits and past statements, and revisited their past coverage.

After the release of the late-April audio recording, The Los Angeles Times published a front-page investigation into several of Sterling’s full-page advertisements for his foundation that ran in the Times. Reporters found that the ads overstated his foundation’s charitable giving or touted plans for projects that have gone nowhere. Years earlier, McDonald’s LA Weekly piece (“Donald T. Sterling’s Skid Row Mirage”) investigated Sterling’s public relations campaign to promote his philanthropy, including a Times ad that promoted a planned homeless shelter on Skid Row that has yet to materialize.

In a 2011 column, Times columnist Bill Plaschke referred to Sterling’s (or “Donald T. Shame’s”) advertisements as “awkward.” Teetor said they pose a conflict of interest for a newspaper that regularly covers the Clippers and its owner. Readers raised questions about the amount of money the Times has received for the ads (the newspaper did not disclose figures, citing company policy) and the Times’ process of verifying Sterling’s claims. The Times’ readers’ representative quoted managing editor Marc Duvoisin as saying: “The advertising department doesn’t tell the newsroom what to cover or how to cover it. By the same token, the newsroom can’t demand information from the advertising department that it doesn’t want to provide.

Revisiting his 2000 cover story on Sterling (“The Worst Franchise in Sports History – and the Man Responsible”), Franz Lidz wrote in Sports Illustrated  (“Sterling’s Offensive Behavior Was No Secret For Years”) that he left out – or editors removed – troubling anecdotes he had collected because “so much of his behavior – extreme parsimony, discriminatory practices, wild sexual escapades – was deemed too weird, too cruel, too contemptible.”

Changing newsroom conceptions about what’s suitable to publish help explain why the latest Sterling comments triggered an unprecedented media response, said Curtis, the Grantland writer.

“In a previous era, there would have been a reluctance to print Sterling’s comments verbatim,” he said. “Newspapers would have reported about the controversy over the comments rather than the comments themselves.”

As Curtis wrote in his recent piece examining the Sterling press coverage, “We have finally blown away the false politeness of the old sports pages.” There’s no longer a stick-to-sports ethos.

“If a sports columnist wrote about Sterling in 2006 and then again in his next column, readers would get fed up and say, ‘Can’t you write about sports again?’” Curtis said.

Columnists in 2006 also could only quote Sterling through legal documents. He didn’t speak to reporters, settled several cases without admitting wrongdoing and objected to his portrayal as a racist.

Tenants who won settlement payouts were often prohibited for speaking about the case. Keating said he was surprised that former players and league executives would not go on the record to condemn Sterling. “They were uncomfortable criticizing other people in their industry,” Keating said. “There seemed to be a strong incentive not to take someone apart so badly.”

NBA commissioner Stern’s inaction also made it hard for the Sterling story to gain traction, Keating said. “If the league isn’t investigating and no one is talking it’s hard to do a story.”

Sterling’s latest comments are harder for him to deny and the public to ignore.

“It’s a very visceral experience to hear those tapes,” Keating said.

Added McDonald: “They finally have him on tape. People feel that they have something real to go after him with” even though the sentiments he expressed had been public record for years.

And as Fox News’ Kurtz wrote: “Lawsuits are dry; secret tapes are hot, especially when there’s an alleged mistress and sports celebrities involved and a whole subplot about deception and revenge. That rendered the Sterling saga a made-for-television story.”

It’s also a made-for-social-media story, which Curtis said is another explanation for why the latest Sterling scandal exploded while previous iterations did not. “You have this rallying effect on Twitter. Players were backed up by sports writers.”

Added James: “With the audio recording and millions of people sharing things you get a snowball effect.”

So much so that McDonald, traveling in Cambodia when the Sterling controversy erupted, heard about it on CNN International and BBC. “I couldn’t believe this was such a major story,” he said.

Keating has another theory as to why this latest Sterling controversy gained so much traction. The subject of Sterling’s derision was Magic Johnson, a beloved, recognizable athlete. Past statements (and alleged housing discrimination) targeted mostly low-income black and Hispanic tenants, who are less visible, Keating said.

Then there’s the issue of the latest controversy coinciding with the Clippers’ meteoric rise. “In previous cases, the national media paid little attention to Sterling controversies because he was in Los Angeles and the Clippers were a bottom-feeder,” McDonald said. “People don’t write about last-place teams.”

Added Keating: “Everyone concluded that [Sterling] was really cheap and kind of funny. He became more of a punchline than a worthy subject of investigation.”

James agrees that the timing of the scandal, during a playoff run for a Clippers team that is now a contender, helps explain the volume of press coverage.

“The team is more relevant now,” James said. “I don’t think anyone really believed that Donald Sterling would be the owner when they’d be a contender. Whenever you have a big, powerful institution, it invites more reporting.”

 

Elia Powers is a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times who recently earned his Ph.D. from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

 

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