Last week, as Barack Obama reeled from fresh foreign-policy disasters, the news media cornered him in Malaysia to seek his reaction to the leading story of the day: Not Vladimir Putin. Not the Middle East. The Donald Sterling recording.
Mr. Sterling, the exceedingly unpleasant owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, made a number of privately recorded comments that appear to reveal him as a racist jerk. (All of this is still alleged; no one has proved that it's him on the recording, but no one believes it's anybody else.)
Mr. Obama didn't have to think too hard. He condemned the (alleged) remarks as "incredibly offensive" and "racist," and added: "The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation."
To what extent Mr. Sterling represents the wider issue of racism in America is open to debate. What's beyond debate is that he is now a massive headache for the National Basketball Association. Everybody wants his head. But how does the NBA propose to get it?
In case you're late to this sordid little tale, Mr. Sterling's tirade was recorded by a former girlfriend, one V. Stiviano, a lovely woman six decades his junior, who describes herself in the recording as "black and Mexican." Mr. Sterling showered her with goodies, including cash, a Lamborghini and a condo. Now his wife (!) has filed a lawsuit demanding that she give them back.
The incriminating conversation takes the form of a demented lovers' quarrel. In it, he asks her to stop posting Instagram photos of herself with black athlete friends, tells her to stop hanging out in public with black people and says he doesn't want her to invite black people to his games. The story was broken by TMZ, a celebrity gossip site whose power sometimes dwarfs the power of all the MSM put together.
The fact that some 81-year-old billionaires are sleazy, obnoxious jerks is probably not news. Mr. Sterling's contemptible views on race aren't news either. In 2009, he paid nearly $3-million to settle a slumlord case in which he was accused of driving African-Americans and Hispanics out of apartment buildings he owned. And while much of the moral outrage now being directed at Mr. Sterling is real (and certainly legitimate), some of it is just piling on. As former Clippers player Shaun Livingston told The New York Times on the weekend, "Everybody kind of knows what's going on, you know what I mean?"
Ironically, the NBA's reputation puts in among the more progressive pro sports leagues. Three-quarters of its players are black. It has an unusually high number of black executives and coaches, including the Clippers' own coach, the highly respected Doc Rivers. Amid all the calls for player boycotts, his was the most sensible response: "I think the biggest statement we can make as men – not as black men, as men – is to stick together and show how strong we are as a group; not splinter, not walk. It's easy to protest. The protest will be in our play."
Everybody's calling for the league to take action, too. But the league is toothless. The only people with real power are the other owners, and it's far from certain what they'll do. Their preferred course of action would be nothing, because owners stick together, and if they kick out one owner, who's next?
But I think they'll have to do something. The smear of racism is just too toxic, and the outcry is too loud. No doubt they wish they could just be rid of V. Stiviano and her digital recorder.
Even if they find a way to take his team away from him, Mr. Sterling will never really pay. He bought the Clippers for less than $13-million in 1981. For the better part of three decades, they were a bad joke – then they suddenly started getting good. Now, the team is actually a contender, and its valuation has soared past $500-million. The man is impervious to shaming, and whatever happens next, he'll be laughing all the way to the bank.