Donald Sterling’s Offensive Foul

April 28, 2014

Donald Sterling’s Offensive Foul

Donald Sterling’s abhorrent remarks on race have put his reputation in critical condition and perhaps also threaten his ownership of an NBA franchise.  For those of us who study crises, their impacts, and how they are managed, there are a couple of observations to draw from this firestorm. 

The first is that not all crises are the same.  While Americans are a forgiving people and frequently give individuals and companies who’ve made mistakes a second chance, no one is rushing to Sterling’s side – apart from his own PR representatives – either to defend his character or accept his apology.  To the contrary, his own players turned their warm-ups inside out at last night’s playoff game to protest against their owner.  Luminaries in professional basketball from Michael Jordan to LeBron James have sharply criticized his comments.  President Obama took on Sterling while overseas, and the media frenzy over his remarks is stunning in intensity even by the standard of a misbehaving billionaire.    

Two important factors make this crisis different and likely irreparable.  One is that Sterling’s tirade created a crisis of values – his values on race that are universally rejected in today’s America. Sterling didn’t use bad judgment in his business or express himself with a poor choice of words.  Instead, he plainly showed himself to be who he is – a man who believes that “associating with black people” is bad.

A values crisis centered on race would be bad enough by itself.  But Sterling’s self-inflicted wound is all the more damaging because African Americans make up a significant proportion of his own team and the NBA – which is why this is also a significant crisis for the league.  Indeed, Sterling has ignited a volatile mix of hypocrisy and racism, profiting from the contributions of many African Americans to the game and his own team, while telling others it is bad to associate with these players.

In our work we often tell people or companies dealing with crises that in order to change the media narrative they need to first demonstrate their true character by taking responsibility for their mistakes and/or changing their policies or practices at issue.  In Sterling’s case he already has revealed his true character, and that is the problem.

UPDATE AFTER NBA ANNOUNCEMENT: Sterling’s comments were beyond bounds, and the NBA Commissioner has gone to the absolute limit in banning him from the game for life, imposing a maximum allowable fine, and putting in motion a process that will strip him of his ownership.  This is much bigger than basketball.  NBA Commission Silver has stood up to racism and hate, and in the process touched a nerve that has united not only players, owners, fans, and supporters of the NBA, but also millions of Americans who know America is an inclusive, tolerant and respectful country in which there is no place for behavior like Donald Sterling’s.

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