Sterling suit seems to fit NBA just fine

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling agreed to pay $2.73 million this week to settle a federal case alleging he discriminated in the rental of apartments he owns with his wife in Southern California.

The settlement is “the largest monetary payment ever obtained” in this kind of case by the U.S. Justice Department, according to a news release from the organization.

It stems from allegations Sterling’s company targeted and discriminated against blacks, Hispanics and families with children in renting apartments in greater Los Angeles. The settlement must still be approved by a federal judge but should also resolve two additional tenant-filed suits alleging racial discrimination.

“The magnitude of this settlement should send a message to all landlords that we will vigorously pursue violations of the Fair Housing Act,” said Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

What the magnitude of this settlement should have done is create a wave of questions and condemnations of Donald Sterling from across the NBA.

Instead, most incredibly, there hasn’t been a lick of public discussion.

The NBA said it has no plans to investigate or comment, according to a spokesman. Other owners have been silent. The NBA Player’s Association has had no reaction and did not respond to messages. The players themselves have, best I can find, said nothing.

The media, which just last month went full force on the story of Rush Limbaugh becoming part of a potential NFL ownership group, has mostly ignored the deal.

So, where’s the outrage?

This also isn’t a new issue for Sterling. Four years ago his company agreed to settle a similar 2003 racial discrimination suit for an undisclosed sum – "one of the largest ever obtained in this type of case," according to the judge – and a reported $5 million in plaintiff legal fees.

Sterling’s attorney Robert Platt said in a statement that the Sterlings “vehemently and unequivocally deny that anyone was discriminated.” The company, Platt claimed, only settled because “the cost of continuing litigation far exceeded the cost of settlement.”

Apparently, Sterling is so cheap he won’t even spend money to defend his reputation against a racial discrimination charge. If you’re innocent (and rich), you’d think squashing the possible assumption that you’re a despicable racist is a project worth dropping some cash on, but hey, this is Donald Sterling. You also wouldn’t think someone could run the Clippers like he has.

Since Sterling made no admission of guilt or liability in the settlement, the NBA’s ability to take official action was greatly reduced. This isn’t league business and there are no criminal charges.

Still, NBA commissioner David Stern could’ve stated he doesn’t approve of an owner repeatedly being involved in these ugly cases. If he’s so concerned with his player’s off-court attire, why not his owners’ off-court business? He could demand the Clippers raise funds and awareness for fair-housing advocacy groups.

In no way does the settlement prevent another owner – perhaps one of the few without his own checkered past – from wondering why he continues to do business with someone who keeps finding himself awash in these allegations.

The terms certainly have no impact on the NBPA or individual players speaking out about it.

There’s no telling how many players were subject, as children, to discriminatory housing practices that forced their families to stay in dangerous, blighted neighborhoods with poor school districts.

If there was ever an issue that should strike a chord of protest, this is it.

It’s two different leagues, two different groups of people, two different circumstances, but the parallels with the firestorm that enveloped Limbaugh’s potential bid to become a minority owner of the St. Louis Rams immediately spring to mind.

Limbaugh was engulfed from all directions. Players, owners, union officials – even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell – all voiced opinions, almost all negative. There was an avalanche of media coverage; in part, because Limbaugh delivers the ratings and page views. (Sterling is merely famous for being one of the worst owners in professional sports.)

Still, Limbaugh was attacked for expressing political views that some people find offensive. You may hate every word he says, but he wasn’t repeatedly settling multimillion dollar racial-discrimination lawsuits.

You’d think Sterling was worth something.

The NBA has an admirable track record of hiring minority coaches and executives. It markets to literally every person on earth (from China to Croatia to Cleveland). Coincidentally, long before Stern became commissioner, he was a young lawyer who worked for the good guys on housing discrimination cases in New Jersey.

It’s even more reason why the league shouldn’t let such astounding settlements pass without comment.

The Justice Department, in its 2006 lawsuit, alleged, among other things, that Sterling’s employees “prepared internal reports that identified the race of tenants” and “made statements to [other] employees . . . indicating that African-Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants.”

According to the Associated Press story, the 2003 lawsuit alleged “Sterling tried to drive out non-Korean tenants at apartments he owned in [Los Angeles’] Koreatown neighborhood.”

The NBA, its fans and players deserve a better explanation from Sterling than he simply didn’t want to spend money defending himself. He may have enough millions to make the lawsuits go away, but not the lingering questions about how he runs his businesses and just what kind of person he is.

If only someone in the NBA cared enough to demand them.