April 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster
Don’t bring black people to my basketball games.
That’s the message 80-year-old Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly delivered to his 20-something girlfriend on a tape that was leaked on the gossip website TMZ yesterday. Among other statements, the man on the tape, purportedly Sterling, says:
It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
“Don’t put [NBA legend Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
I use the term “allegedly” because the tape hasn’t been formally authenticated as of this writing. But Sterling’s weak response, released to TMZ by the Clippers organization, suggests he’s guilty as charged:
“We have heard the tape on TMZ Sports. We do not know if it is legitimate or if it has been altered.”
The statement goes on … “We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ Sports — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family, alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would ‘get even.'”
And the statement goes on, “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”
And there’s this: “He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”
That’s not even close to a denial.
If he hadn’t uttered racist sentiments, it would have been easy to state that the tape was illegitimate. The only way the legitimacy of the tape could even be called into question is if it was possible that Sterling had uttered such statements. Sterling’s non-denial reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s ridiculous non-denial, in which he said he couldn’t say “with certitude” that a lewd tweet was of him in his underwear.
The organization’s attempt to question the motives of the leaker is even more pathetic given that it wasn’t accompanied by a strong denial. This is a mushy statement, bordering on a smear, that is unlikely to give an iota of comfort to even Sterling’s most ardent supporters.
In our media training courses, executives often ask how they can avoid being the victims of furtively taped conversations. My answer? You can’t. Your job is to avoid saying incendiary things that can be used against you, even in conversations you regard as private. In this case, Sterling may have been set up by his much younger girlfriend—but Sterling is solely to blame for the consequences, as no one forced him to share such racist views.
That leads to the cost of this mistake. Many people in the NBA are already calling for Sterling to lose his team. Given the NBA’s constitution, that may not be easy (a long suspension that essentially removes day-to-day control from Sterling may be more likely). But there are many other ways for Sterling to pay for this mistake—through fan boycotts, players who refuse to play for the Clippers, and diminished brand equity and reputation.
Assuming this tape will be authenticated, Sterling will have turned himself into a pariah who will go down in the annals of sports history alongside other infamous bigots including Marge Schott, Jimmy The Greek, and Al Campanis.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.