Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in hot water after a recording of him allegedly making offensive comments surfaced last week, but if the story continues to garner media coverage, the NBA itself could be affected, said Mike Paul of Reputation Doctor.
"The NBA hopes this crisis stays with one team, but if the story continues to have legs and is in the media for several more days, it only gets worse," he explained.
Paul has worked with a number of professional athletes and sports leagues on crisis communications, but he declined to disclose any of his current or former clients.
The Clippers’ players staged a silent protest on April 27 against Sterling before their playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, following the release of a tape that appears to feature Sterling making offensive comments. Before the game, the players removed their warm-up shirts that displayed the team logos and revealed red t-shirts worn inside out, with logos hidden. After the warm-up, they took off the red shirts and played wearing their regular uniforms.
The recording, which was legitimized by legal counsel, featured Sterling allegedly telling his girlfriend that he doesn’t want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them.
On Monday, sponsors started breaking away from the Clippers, including CarMax, State Farm Insurance, Kia Motors America, airline Virgin America, P. Diddy's water brand AQUAHydrate, and Red Bull.
"When someone is in crisis, in this case, the team owner, and their reputation is associated with yours, the first thing you do is to try and protect and separate your reputation from that of the one that is in crisis," said Paul. "That is exactly what they did with their non-violent protest, and I applaud it."
Although the team can continue on with peaceful protests, and Sterling apologized on April 26 to "anyone who may have been hurt by the racist rant being attributed to him," the most important comms response now is a heartfelt on-camera apology directly from Sterling, said Paul.
"[Sterling] simply needs to admit the comments he made were despicable, and that he is going to change his attitude, and he has learned a valuable lesson," said Paul. "Maybe he can go to sensitivity training to learn why these things are wrong, not just because he got caught; and then he has to do the right thing moving forward."
A report earlier today inaccurately stated that PR specialist Sitrick and Company was brought on to work with the Clippers on crisis communications.
"Sitrick is not representing the Clippers. It has been reported, but it is incorrect," said an agency representative. Further information was not disclosed.
A Clippers representative was not immediately available to comment.
President Barack Obama, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan all condemned Sterling’s comments. Magic Johnson is now interested in purchasing the Clippers, according to reports.
The NBA has launched a probe into Sterling’s alleged comments, which were posted on TMZ on April 25, and quickly went viral on Twitter.
"Before the close of business this Friday, the NBA will have more to say about the situation and they will potentially have some sanctions, such as penalties and fines, levied against the team because of [Sterling’s] actions," Paul said.