When the news broke on TMZ that the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, 80-year-old billionaire Donald Sterling, made several racist remarks while on the telephone to his assistant/companion V. Stiviano, 31, the controversy sparked a wildfire of media coverage and speculation. Sterling is a well-known figure both in the world of sports and real estate – having made his fortune in the latter.
Prior to the incident, Sterling was fairly well regarded in Los Angeles circles as a business leader and philanthropist and the NAACP was prepared to honor Sterling a lifetime achievement award for all of his work in the community. But all of that vanished after TMZ made public the racially-charged conversation and no amount of reputation management is likely to reverse the damage.
The tapes aired an ugly and racist stream of consciousness that included Sterling chiding Stiviano for associating with African Americans. The uproar from the tapes was immediate and Sterling is banished for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million dollars. According to ABC News, the NBA Board of Governors will vote shortly on whether Sterling will be forced to sell the team. In addition to the penalties by the NBA, many famous NBA players and civil rights leaders have come out to express their outrage – wondering how in this day and age a man who employs a diverse team of professional basketball players can harbor such views.
So how did a private conversation between Stiviano and Sterling go public? The Los Angeles Times has a theory. In March, Stiviano was served notice that she was being sued by Sterling’s wife, Rochelle or Shelly. In the lawsuit, Shelly “… depicted Stiviano as a serial seductress of rich old men, including the 80-year-old Clipper owner, and demanded the return of four luxury vehicles, $240,000 in cash and a $1.8-million house.” The Los Angeles Times also speculates that the suit set into motion “…a chain of events that led the NBA to strip the Beverly Hills billionaire of control of the Clippers and ban him from the league for life.”
In fact, a month and half after being served, TMZ posted the infamous telephone conversation. While Stiviano does admit taping the phone conversation and even noted that Sterling gave her permission to do so, Stiviano does not admit to leaking the tapes to TMZ. Through her lawyer, Stiviano told the press that she only gave the tapes to a friend for “safekeeping” after Sterling’s wife became hostile and tried to sue.
The controversy over the tapes has many layers. You have offensive and racist remarks that damaged the reputation of Sterling and his basketball team, in the middle of the playoffs when the attention of fans should have been on their impressive play on the court. You also have a thwarted tale of the wife getting back at her philandering husband and his young mistress (though Stiviano has said her relationship with Sterling was strictly professional). And then there are the legal ramifications. Does Sterling have a right to privacy? Does the NBA have the right to force Sterling to sell his team for private comments that may have been leaked illegally?
This sordid tale is still in motion (or commotion). In early May, it was announced that Sterling is now shopping for lawyers and plans to fight back while Stiviano is interviewing and making the circuit with her side of the story. On Barbara Walters, Stiviano claimed that she loves “Sterling like a father…” and hopes that Sterling will issue a public apology.
The battle continues… but the reputational damage is already done.