The billionaire Donald Sterling, who has owned the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise since 1981, was suspended for life from the National Basketball Association this week. Racist remarks he allegedly made in private to a young friend were aired on the gossip website TMZ. Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, also fined Mr Sterling $2.5m and announced he would try to force him to sell the team, which could bring as much as $1bn. He called Mr Sterling’s opinions “hateful”, “offensive” and “harmful”. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr Silver’s outrage. But the predicament in which Mr Sterling has placed him has more to do with money than with morals.
Anyone who listens to the nine-minute TMZ recording after having read the press accounts will be a bit confused. Offensive the audio is. But “hateful” is too strong a word, especially for those Americans who remember the late Cincinnati Reds baseball owner Marge Schott, who was censured in the 1990s for saying Adolf Hitler “was good in the beginning” but then “went too far”. This new recording, by contrast, captures a pathetic intimate quarrel between Mr Sterling and a 31-year-old woman, V Stiviano. Something is upsetting Mr Sterling very much, but it is not black people – at least not primarily. It is the Molière-esque predicament of an 80-year-old man with a young companion he cannot control. Ms Stiviano posted photos of herself on Instagram with two black athletes many decades his junior. Some of his characterisations are racist. (“Why should you be walking publicly with black people?”) But what makes the audio bizarre is that, when race enters the conversation it is she, not he, who introduces it.