To say Donald Sterling’s comments have created a media avalanche would be the understatement of the year. By this time, most people are familiar with the incredibly offensive and racist comments that have been attributed to the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Clearly, Sterling has dug himself a hole so deep that there is little he could say or do to mitigate the damage created by these comments. Simply, sorry was never enough. He let down his team and his community; he simply put the last nail in his proverbial reputational coffin.
While there might not be much more that can be said about Sterling, there is still a lot that can be said about the NBA’s handling of the situation. The crisis created by these comments wasn’t only a personal crisis, but a brand and reputational crisis for the NBA.
That’s why Tuesday’s announcement of a lifetime ban, maximum fine, and effort to force Sterling to sell his team is such an important case study in how to ensure a brand manages its image and delivers on its pact with the community.
Swift action. The NBA promised it and it delivered. They didn’t allow the investigation to linger. Less than four days passed before commissioner Adam Silver announced the results and the punishment.
The punishment. It left no question about the seriousness of the issue to the NBA. Silver expressed outrage, and the league’s punishment demonstrated it. Sterling received a lifetime ban from the NBA, the steepest fine possible, and the league committed to taking every step to force him to sell the team. The punishment simply left no room for questions about the NBA’s commitment to addressing this issue.
Being transparent. The commissioner didn’t simply say, "here is the punishment…end of story." Silver took time to answer questions from the press corps. He detailed the investigation. He outlined his conversations. He explained the league’s thinking in arriving at this decision. And, most importantly, he outlined concrete steps for moving forward that were actionable and timely.
From the perspective of an Angeleno, the NBA has taken the right steps to restore confidence in a beleaguered franchise. In the land of the Lakers, the Clippers are often forgotten. Although the team has heart and die-hard fans, including Billy Crystal, a black mark like this could easily have defeated the spirit. However, with the support of the NBA and the commitment of the team, the Clippers have turned this into an opportunity to gain fans and win hearts. Now, the team that has been the butt of jokes in LA and the league has everyone pulling for them. While there is nothing good about the circumstances, it has at least provided an opportunity for these athletes and this community to come together and make a clarion statement about our commitment to diversity.
Over the years, we’ve all seen investigations linger. Whether it was the six-plus months that Major League Baseball took to investigate Pete Rose or the NFL’s lackluster response to rising concerns about concussions, they’ve all allowed speculation and rumor to drive the conversation. However, the NBA didn’t let that happen this time. It acted in a manner that should be held up as a model of how to make a commitment to your audience and deliver on it, especially in a crisis situation.
While litigation is certain to ensue, it is clear the NBA is steadfast and has its eye on the prize. It will weather this storm and build trust with fans.
Sean Rossall is the VP of media relations and crisis communications at Los Angeles-based Cerrell Associates.