Over the last six years, nearly two dozen L.A. residents have sued Sterling for engaging in racist housing practices and Jim Crow-style bigotry. In a 2003 deposition, the 76-year-old real estate mogul admitted to paying a former employee to have sex with him in an elevator. Three years ago, the U.S. government charged him with "willful" mistreatment of African-American and Latino tenants, and earlier this month, he agreed to pay the Dept. of Justice nearly $3 million to settle a federal racial-discrimination housing lawsuit, the largest award ever for a case of its kind.
Since 2003, he has committed to give more than $8 million to plaintiffs to end housing-discrimination cases before they went to trial. To top it off, Sterling is currently being sued by Elgin Baylor, the Clippers' long-time general manager and an NBA Hall of Famer, for age and race discrimination.
Through it all, he's emerged remarkably unscathed. The NBA, which punishes players and team executives for criticizing referees and skipping press conferences, has never fined, suspended or even issued a statement about Sterling. NBA commissioner David Stern, who in the past has reprimanded players for their rap albums and wardrobes, refuses to comment on Sterling, as does the NBA Players Association.
NBA legend Oscar Robertson, who was president of the league's players union during his career, is appalled by the lack of outrage. "If you're a black athlete, how can you play for this guy?" said Robertson, referring to Sterling. "It's on the stars and the players' association to say something about this – the owners will always protect one of their own," added Robertson, who now runs chemical and facilities management companies in Cincinnati.
Sports commissioners like Stern have broad authority to punish any act that is deemed to "not in the best interests of the league," but how they use that power varies widely from sport to sport and case by case, according to sports-law attorneys and former league officials.
"If enough people are outraged or say they're bothered by something an owner does, then the league will impose something," says former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. "There's no clear set of guidelines, and it's a very difficult, murky area."
Several current and former NBA executives, including oft-quoted Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, declined to speak on the record with FanHouse about Sterling. Clippers' sponsors such as the Los Angeles Daily News, Bank of America and Jetblue Airways did not return phone calls or declined to comment. Likewise, minority-group leaders such as Rev. Al Sharpton, who earlier this month demanded that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh be banned from a prospective NFL ownership group, have said nothing about Sterling's fitness to own an NBA club.
"The silence on this is astounding," says Dr. Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California film school professor who's written extensively on race and popular culture. Sterling, he says, "may not be guilty according to the rule of law, but neither was O.J." There's been relatively little outcry, according to Dr. Boyd, because of the public's ignorance regarding housing laws, media indifference about the Clippers, and perhaps most importantly, Sterling's ability to fork over huge settlements. "You don't pay that kind of money if your hands are clean," he says.
The saga sheds light on the uniquely slippery image of Sterling, who frequently buys ads in the Los Angeles Times to announce his philanthropic and civic awards. His recent foibles have not generated tabloid buzz or provoked much righteous indignation, even in an era when athletes, celebrities and politicians are chewed up for the smallest gaffes.
Last week, for example, Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams lifted his middle finger after a game -- and was immediately fined $250,000 by the NFL. In September, U.S. soccer star Jozy Altidore was docked pay for posting Twitter comments about his British team, and this past weekend, the Clippers' own TV announcers were suspended by a cable-TV network for mispronouncing the word "Iranian" on the air. (Sterling says the organization convinced Fox Sports West to reduce the suspension from four games to one.)
For his part, Sterling -- who was born Donald Tokowitz and began his career as a personal-injury attorney -- has shown little remorse about the sex scandal or the real estate lawsuits. "I don't think [the racism charges] hurt me at all," he told the L.A. Times this week. "The reason it was settled was because [the government] didn't have one person to stand up and say I discriminated against them. If they had the one person, I'm high profile and they would've liked to have gone at it."
Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Dept. of Justice's Civil Rights Division in Washington, said several tenants filed complaints and testified on the record about mistreatment of African-American residents at Sterling's buildings. "I'm not sure what he's referring to," says Miyar, who noted that a "good portion" of $2.725 million settlement is earmarked for tenants who can come forward and make claims for discrimination. "This was a record award, and we're happy with the outcome."
Sterling's attorneys point out that the settlements do not represent an admission of guilt. They also note that the payments were made in part to satisfy Sterling's insurance companies, which feared long and expensive trials. In a statement earlier this month about the federal housing lawsuit, Sterling's attorney Robert Platt said "the cost of continued litigation far exceeded the cost of settlement."
At least one organization, Tenants Together, a renters-rights group based in San Francisco, is trying to keep Sterling's problems in the public eye. It is circulating a petition calling on the NBA to discipline the Clippers owner, and created a web site devoted to the issue – www.nbashowyoucare.org. It has also posted a video on YouTube that contrasts the league's "NBA Cares" public-service initiative with excerpts of the court filings from the federal lawsuit brought against Sterling. (The video has been viewed about 1,700 times since its debut on Nov. 10.) "The NBA is missing out on an opportunity to condemn housing discrimination," says Gabe Treves, the organization's program coordinator. "It's unacceptable."
Aside from his off-court problems, Sterling has been an undeniable failure as an owner. Since 1981, when Sterling purchased the Clippers, the franchise has lost more games than any other NBA team. During his reign, the Clippers have made the playoffs just four times, employed 15 head coaches, had the NBA's worst home attendance in 10 different seasons, and become synonymous with losing and mismanagement.
In recent years, leagues have trumpeted new rules and stiffer penalties for misbehavior by players, but the code is less clear -- and the penalties less consistent -- for owners or team executives who generate unflattering attention.
In 1992, Major League Baseball's executive council -- the league had no commissioner at the time -- suspended former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for her controversial comments about African-Americans and Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, and in 1970, former MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended George Steinbrenner for two years after the New York Yankees owner was convicted of making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.
The NBA, meanwhile, did nothing after New York Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas and the Knicks organization were found guilty in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former employee. In contrast, the league suspended All-Star forward Chris Webber in 2003 for lying to a grand jury about accepting illegal payments from a University of Michigan booster.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not hesitated to discipline off-field misbehavior, even in cases where there's been no public admission of guilt. Two years ago, he fined the New England Patriots $250,000 and stripped the team of a first-round draft pick as punishment for the the infamous "Spygate" videotaping scandal, though Patriots coach Bill Belichick -- who was fined $500,000 by the NFL -- has insisted that team executives and owner Robert Kraft had no role. Cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was never convicted or admitted guilt in any of the numerous lawsuits brought against him, but was nonetheless suspended by Goodell for the entire 2007 season because of "repeated violations" of the league's player-conduct policy.
The housing lawsuits against Sterling include a laundry list of jaw-dropping allegations about Sterling's behavior and management practices at several apartment buildings in L.A.'s Koreatown neighborhood. Many of the most embarrassing details have been recounted in previous stories by ESPN the Magazine and LA Weekly, including the testimony of a former Sterling employee who claimed the Clippers owner did not want Mexican tenants and believed African-American renters "smell and attract vermin."
In another deposition, an African-American tenant testified that Rochelle Sterling, the owner's wife, posed as a housing inspector and brought along a cameraman to videotape images of the apartment, according to attorney Gary Rhoades, the former litigation director of the Housing Rights Center, an L.A. advocacy organization which filed the 2003 lawsuits on behalf of 19 tenants. "Why billionaires would be taking the time to do this is beyond me," he says. "It seemed like every week in that case brought a new low."
The financial terms of the settlement regarding the 2003 suits remain confidential, but Sterling was also ordered to pay $5 million to cover plaintiffs' lawyer fees. In her ruling regarding the fees, Judge Dale Fischer sanctioned Sterling for failing to turn over documents and chided his legal team for "scorched earth tactics" that created "large amounts of unnecessary work."
Going forward, it's unlikely that the NBA will censure Sterling about the housing cases, largely because he's never admitted guilt. Even if he did, the NBA typically doesn't punish crimes unless the charges include violent behavior or conduct that compromises the integrity of NBA games, such as gambling. And that means there's likely to be a lot more losing in the future for resigned Clipper die-hards like Steve Perrin. "We assume that every single terrible act attributed to him is true," says Perrin, a 47-year old from Long Beach, CA who runs the Clip Nation blog and has been a fan for nearly 20 years. At this point, supporters of the team "are inured to his sliminess," he says. "He is a terrible, terrible person who happens to own the team we root for -- and there's nothing we can do about it."