Presumably, when the team of crisis public relations experts sat down to prep Clippers owner Donald Sterling, they were able to hammer one paragraph into his head.
“I’m not a racist. I made a terrible, terrible mistake. I’m here with you today to apologize, and to ask for forgiveness,” Sterling begins, in what will quickly spin out into the most tone-deaf apology in TV history.
That was good. What followed was the antimatter of good. If the ideas Sterling vocalized to CNN’s Anderson Cooper were to come into contact with goodness, the universe would collapse in on itself.
Throughout, it was a cringing and maudlin display. Sterling kicks it off with a transparently phony story about his granddaughter being denied sweets at school because “we don’t give candy to racists.”
He speaks of one mistake, though we already know there have been many others. He is constantly near tears, but lacking the awareness to disguise their self-pitying aspect.
Watching it, my thoughts circled back to a spiked portion of a fourteen-year-old Sports Illustrated profile in which Sterling chased and whipped his preteen stepson while in the company of an agent and a player.
“Even if Sterling were the source of this stuff, no one would believe it,” the writer, Franz Lidz, recalls an editor telling him.
They believe it now. The only person who’s having any trouble adapting to the new shape of things is Sterling himself.
The redemption bus turns off the cliff when he begins to address Magic Johnson, the man whose presence at Clippers games prompted Sterling’s initial tumble.
“Here is a man [Johnson] who … I don’t know if I should say this …”
(A suggestion: Should you ever find yourself uttering the words, ‘I don’t know if I should say this,’ you have answered your own question. And yet nonetheless …)
“… He acts so holy. He made love to every girl in every city in North America. He had AIDS. And when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him. I hoped he lived and could be well. I could have. Is he an example for children?”
“Those AIDS.” Sterling, a metaphorical gravedigger of Herculean endurance, keeps shovelling.
“Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think [Johnson] should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. But what does he do for black people? He doesn’t do anything.”
The key in all this is Cooper’s expression.
As Sterling wanders into a field of bear traps, kneeling down to stick his head in each one, Cooper continues to nod slowly. As if any of this makes sense. As if this is aaaaaall just normal and sane.
Were it me, I’d have spent the entire thing screaming “DID YOU JUST SAY THAT?” and clawing at my face in tabloid rapture.
At this point, one must wonder two things about Sterling.
Is he in full control of his faculties? This inner-tube ride over Stupidity Falls has passed from outrageous to farcical to something approaching pitiable. Sterling’s estranged wife claims he may be suffering from dementia. I’m no doctor, but he is the uncle we’d all lock in the car during Thanksgiving dinner.
And second, if he is stable, how did this goof get so rich?
Envisioning Sterling building a billion-dollar empire is like imagining a monkey building a rocket ship. Then, having completed his chimpanzee spacecraft, steering it into the side of a mountain during liftoff.
Once it was over, NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement that ought to have been accompanied by a soundtrack of sighs:
“I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack.”
The awkward phrasing suggests this was something Silver banged off on his phone while sitting around in sweatpants. That’s how far Sterling’s fallen – public statements ripping him no longer need to be lawyered.
No matter how far you fall, there is always a path back up the hill. Forgiveness is the endorphin released by the hive mind after the initial swell of outrage. We don’t want to forgive. On some basic level, we need it.
Having thwarted all of us again, Sterling is well and truly finished. He has freed the NBA from addressing any contrary arguments about free speech and property rights. This gong show can drag through the courts for years, and it won’t touch the league.
This chapter effectively ended on Monday night. What’s left is an old man standing on his porch in his underwear, yelling at passersby.
Somewhere in L.A., that team of PR hacks is sitting around right now wondering where it went wrong. All Sterling had to do was tell a credible lie. It’s proof that there is no more difficult story to sell than one you can’t fool yourself into believing.