Sterling Silver – two sides of the NBA crisis coin

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It seems everywhere we turn these days there’s another sports scandal. AFL club Essendon took centre stage in Australia last year with its drugs scandal, and now it’s one of the world’s biggest sporting affiliations that’s battling a very public crisis that gained significant attention in the media – the National Basketball Association (NBA).

In April 2014 a recording of an alleged conversation between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and girlfriend V. Stiviano surfaced whereby Sterling is said to have told Stiviano not to bring African Americans to Clippers games. Not surprisingly this enraged celebrities, current and former players, fans and even the US President, sparking allegations of racism.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver jumped into action quickly, launching a full investigation into the allegations, with the realisation that this would be his first major challenge since his appointment in February. The investigation and Silver operated in an open and transparent manner, eventually uncovering that it was Sterling on the recording.

Silver reprimanded Sterling with the NBA’s maximum penalties, including a $2.5 million fine and a life ban from attending NBA events. More significantly though, Silver put the wheels in motion to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, needing the support of 75 per cent of other team owners.

In this case, Silver handled the crisis from the NBA’s point of view in the best possible way. Sterling on the other hand, did himself no favours.

The fact that sponsors were distancing themselves and/or ceasing agreements didn’t seem to bother Sterling, nor did the fact that his team was currently right in the mix of one of the most competitive playoff series the NBA had seen in a long time and that this would no doubt impact on their performance.

The Clippers and other teams made subtle pre-game protests, while players from across the NBA indicated they would not play next season if Sterling was still the owner of the team. The Clippers eventually fell in the second round of the playoffs to Oklahoma City Thunder two games to four in the best of seven games.

The hard and fast rule when it comes to crisis communications is simply ‘tell the truth, tell it all and tell it now’. Unfortunately Sterling didn’t see it this way, taking close to two weeks to respond and his eventual apology did more harm than good.

He publicly apologised in an interview with CNN, but went on to criticise former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson in the same interview, who was one of the most outspoken individuals calling for Sterlings removal, saying:

“He acts so holy. I mean he made love to every girl in every city of America, and he had AIDS.”

Sterling further crippled his apology by claiming he was baited into the comments and that it was not how he normally spoke. Regardless, it had little to no effect on the public’s desire to have him removed. A case of “too little too late”.

While everyone applauded Silver’s response to the incident, Sterling didn’t give up without a fight. Despite hiring lawyers to fight the charges, it has since been reported that Sterling has settled to sell the team for a rumoured $2 billion, with fans and players finally breathing a sigh of relief as what could have seen the destruction of one of the NBA’s most successful franchises in recent years was avoided.

Rebuilding the reputation of the Clippers shouldn’t be too challenging with Sterling out of the picture if fans come back to support the team. In any case the new owners will have their work cut out for them reengaging with sponsors and other stakeholders. Let’s just hope the players can put this behind them and come out strong next season.

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