The statement released by the Los Angeles Clippers in response to the swelling controversy over Donald Sterling’s alleged conversation tape with girlfriend V. Stiviano reads like an admission if viewed between the lines. The team does not deny that the male voice on the tape is that of Sterling, but raises the potential of the owner’s voice having been altered. The Clippers say they are investigating whether any alteration occurred. Further, the statement contains a standard recital that the words spoken do not reflect the true thoughts and feelings of the owner, who purports to be a great friend to African Americans in general and Magic Johnson in particular.
The response of the team is typical when someone has been caught red-handed doing something they should not. One standard ploy is to attack the messenger. The statement references that Ms. Stiviano is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Sterling’s wife alleging the young woman extracted improper benefits from the octogenarian billionaire. Ms. Stiviano claims the items she received from the owner were gifts. Another standard ploy is to throw up a smokescreen about the authenticity of the tape regarding alteration of Sterling’s voice. While possibly a legitimate defense if actually applicable, this smells more like a defense thrown up to buy time for more maneuvering room.
Commissioner Adam Silver promises an “extraordinarily quick” investigation into the matter, which will focus on the authenticity of the tape. The attorney representing Ms. Stiviano states she will not cooperate with NBA investigators without ground rules. He is concerned with possible implications related to the pending lawsuit against Stiviano. At this point, Stiviano does not appear to have a clear incentive to cooperate with the league and perhaps stalling them is a strategy to reach a settlement in the case in exchange for an agreement to remain quiet when the league attempts to question her. Based on the teams initial response to the matter, which rings hollow if reading between the lines, Donald Sterling is likely attempting to orchestrate removing Stiviano from public view.
Commissioner Silver is stuck between a rock and a hard place if Stiviano does not cooperate and Sterling avoids direct questioning. While the league commissioner has the power to punish the owner for conduct not in the best interests of the league, Silver does not have subpoena power to compel the Clippers owner to cooperate. If Sterling speaks through his attorneys, Silver could have a difficult time reaching a firm conclusion as to the authenticity of the tape, although roadblocks set up by Sterling to dodge direct questioning do offer strong circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing.
Silver will have many players, fans and prominent African American voices, such as Al Sharpton, breathing down his neck in a demand for prompt and harsh punishment. Silver spoke of due process yesterday in his initial response to the matter. Regardless of the results of Silver’s investigation, if you read between the lines of Donald Sterling’s statement in response to the viral condemnation of his actions, you can see he is fighting a very difficult battle.
Commentary by William Costolo