Ask the White Guy: Why Did Donald Sterling Get a Pass Until Now

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern and Sterling

Q. Donald Sterling has been an openly misogynistic, womanizing dirtbag for years. Why did he get a pass until now

A. I think Sterling was caught in four trends:

1. Our data show that sexism is a larger axis of discrimination than race and/or ethnicity. I think Sterling’s misogyny would have been tolerated, but his racism was not.

2. Money interests: The players were planning a work disruption during the crescendo of the season. The potential loss in advertising, merchandising and arena revenue made Sterling’s continued presence a financial risk. This does not always make the case alone—for example, Mark Emmert, President of the NCAA, is making such foolish remarks that he’s going to hasten college-sports reforms. More on Emmert later.

3. Social-media effectiveness: “Going viral” is now something that most Americans understand. This too does not always make the case (see our story on Dartmouth’s hapless president, who is the proverbial frog in boiling water).

4. Senior leadership: Today’s effective senior leader is very cognizant of his or her responsibility for understanding how values impact items 1 and 2 above. I don’t think the NBA’s last commissioner (who tolerated Sterling) would have acted as decisively as Adam Silver, who has been widely commended for his swift and firm dismissal of Sterling from the NBA community.

The most important trend, in my opinion, is No. 3. I’ll use another sports story to illustrate why I say this. Northwestern University football players recently won a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that allows them to form a union. The players have a few reasonable and logical demands, including healthcare for life if injured and guaranteed scholarships. At this point, most Americans do not agree with the college players forming a union—but most Blacks and Latinos agree. Further, there is now a course on concussions in sports at George Washington Law School. What I see as an accelerant for this process is that Emmert must love the taste of his own shoe leather because he can’t seem to keep his foot out of his mouth. SIX of the top 10 results of a Google search for his name are critical articles—one describing him as a “rich @$hole,” referring to his $1.6 million compensation (and possibly to the expensive, Newt Gingrich-like haircut that seems to be popular with certain kinds of men). Emmert’s #AskEmmert Twitter campaign was a (hilarious) disaster.

There’s a lesson here: Leaders who aren’t clear about their values—and/or are too arrogant—are going to be run over from behind by today’s media, which is not led by The New York Times or CNN. It’s led by the people—Twitter,, Facebook, etc.—and the people can achieve critical mass in just a few hours. People and organizations that ignore an offensive person or message will be punished economically on a scale that is unprecedented in both its scope and swiftness.

In closing, it’s disgusting that Sterling was tolerated for so long. My Spidey sense perked right up as soon as I saw the picture of him with women who were clearly more than 50 years younger (and clearly not granddaughters) in the front row of the crowd at a game. This is a guy who couldn’t care less what you think and is going to behave anyway he wants. People that wealthy used to be protected by those who either benefited from the wealth or wanted to suck up to it. But the scales tipped on my first, second and third points, and the leadership of the NBA knew when to cut the relationship—with alacrity. A shame it didn’t happen years ago, but we can point to this as a sign of progress.

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