Sterling Situation Proves Public Perception Ultimately Defines Brands

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2010 file photo, Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling watches his team play in Los Angeles
FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2010 file photo, Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling watches his team play in Los Angeles. The NBA is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to his girlfriend. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement Saturday, APril 26, 2014, that the league is in the process of authenticating the validity of the recording posted on TMZ's website. Bass called the comments "disturbing and offensive." (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Professional sports owners are largely untouchable. They can raise ticket prices and black out games and move the team from city to city. They don't even have to worry about losing their team because of low ticket sales, because cable television and stadium subsidies cover most of their costs.

But what happened this week with Clippers owner Donald Sterling proves that once an owner threatens the financial welfare of the league and the other owners, he's gotta go.

The NBA has worked hard for the last three decades to celebrate black athletes -- while being careful not to let them become too "black" -- and bring them into our living rooms. No other league brings so many white fans as close to black athletes.

So when Sterling was exposed expressing the views that he's likely had for decades, it immediately seemed foreign and counter to the NBA brand. And it wasn't an offensive comment or two that could be dismissed or apologized for; Sterling's comments were like a tsunami of racism. (And there are reportedly many more hours that haven't been released.)

Traditionally, black athletes are often portrayed in the media as behaving badly, and it's up to the white commissioner to discipline them and thus appease white fans and corporate sponsors. That's what makes the Sterling case unique: Very rarely is one of the elite white owners actually punished to this extent. They're sometimes fined or suspended, but it takes an action of monumental proportions to lead the league to suspend or expel an owner.

As with the Pacers-Pistons brawl, it's those actual recordings that are what are most significant here. The video of Ron Artest jumping into the stands was looped endlessly, but few people know that Artest himself never actually landed a punch. But that video sure looked terrible. Similarly, Sterling's comments, while obviously offensive, would not have been nearly as shocking had they come out in the form of a transcript or news article.

Indeed, we know that Sterling had been dealing with allegations of racism for at least the last decade. He was the subject of multiple lawsuits for housing discrimination. He once allegedly made comments to a Clippers executive stating that he wanted his team to consist of "poor black boys from the South" with a white head coach. No doubt the other owners were aware of the allegations at least by 2006, when Bomani Jones wrote a column for ESPN titled, "Sterling's Racism Should Be News."

In fact, discriminating against minorities by refusing to rent them housing in parts of Los Angeles is far more offensive than Sterling's comments to his girlfriend about who she should be seen with. It's probably not hard for any of us to imagine an older relative or acquaintance saying the sort of things Sterling said on the tapes. But very few of us would ever know someone actually racially discriminating, particularly in a multimillion-dollar business.

As soon as the Sterling tapes hit the social-media news stream -- R.I.P., news "cycle" -- corporate America were the first ones to jump ship. That must have scared the hell out of the NBA. Virtually all the Clippers' major sponsors had suspended their sponsorship or ended it within 24 hours of the tapes becoming public. Suddenly the NBA had to worry about its own sponsors not wanting to be associated with a league that would have the country's most prominent racist as an owner.

Both Sterling's comments and the NBA's reaction to those comments prove the importance of public perception when it comes to protecting a brand. Sterling's comments -- which were obviously offensive and misguided -- were predicated on his belief that the public persona his girlfriend displayed via social media would affect his own image and the image of "his" team. "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you are associating with black people," Sterling said in one of the tapes.  He went on to say that the "little I ask you is not to promote it on that, and not to bring them to my games."

In other words, at the heart of Sterling's comments is his belief that public perception is more important than someone's actual actions. Similarly, the NBA excused Sterling's alleged racism until it became a public problem. And it's far from over, since Sterling is highly unlikely to sell without a fight.

And if Sterling does eventually sell? Well, Oprah and David Geffen are teaming up to place a bid, according to Oprah. Magic Johnson has also expressed interest. Personally, I'd like to echo Newt Gingrich (I can't believe I'm writing that) in calling for the Clippers to be sold to the people of L.A. in a Green Bay Packers-style model. The other owners would never go for it, because it threatens their power, but it should be our ideal. We'd never have to worry about the transgressions of a solitary owner again. Instead, the team would truly reflect the people, and the profits would go back to the community. If only all sports worked that way....

Ultimately, it's clear that every organization -- sports or otherwise -- needs to both build up its brand and then protect that brand. If it does the work on the front end to ensure that the organization is concerned about ethics, integrity and respect before all else, the public relations and crisis management on the back end will be much easier. He'd be able to control his own narrative instead of letting the media dictate it for him. Had Sterling realized this years ago, he'd still have his team.