Expect Silver to make Sterling pay - a lot

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
9:50
AM ET
Rovell By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com
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The penalty levied against Donald Sterling will likely be the single greatest an owner has ever faced in sports history.

Why?

Because it has to be.

The public at large doesn't care that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban criticizes officials, actions that have cost him up to $500,000 in a single fine. Breaking solidarity during the last NBA lockout cost Miami Heat owner Micky Arison half a million as well, but that's nothing more than a local news item.

Even the highest NBA fine dropped on a team to date -- $3.5 million for the Minnesota Timberwolves negotiating a secret contract with Joe Smith -- doesn't make the national office water-cooler talk. Illicit dealings like this are chronicled in the business pages seemingly every day.

Each of these situations is a crime against league bylaws. They don't inspire media members halfway across the world to ask the president of the United States to weigh in, as Barack Obama did from Malaysia.

What the recording allegedly made by Sterling represents is a completely different ballgame.

The ugly words, dropped in such a casual tone, are a crime against society, a slight to human decency. People who had never heard of Sterling, never even heard of the Los Angeles Clippers, are rooting for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to do the right thing. They care.

Silver's first major challenge ranks right up there with the toughest things David Stern faced -- the "Malice at the Palace" fight, the Tim Donaghy scandal, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo -- in his 30-year tenure.

The only case comparable to Sterling's is that of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was fined $25,000 and kicked out of Major League Baseball for a year for her racist comments. Three years later, she was pulled away from operating the team, and never regained control, after making a positive comment about Hitler.

But Sterling's remarks are more troublesome for the NBA than Schott's were for Major League Baseball. Sure, the words are just as disgusting, just as unacceptable. But with Sterling, one can hear the words allegedly coming from his mouth; Schott's comments were made in private conversations to employees, or read on a printed page of deposition transcript.

Then there's the great multiplier.

In the nearly 18 years since Schott made her last troublesome remarks, the Internet and social media have exploded. The world has gotten smaller. Indiscretions are magnified, and words, especially bad ones, move at lightning speed. In 1996, it was possible that someone didn't see or hear about what the Reds owner said. Today, the odds that anyone with a computer, TV or phone hasn't heard the Sterling TMZ recording are slim.

That's why Silver has to give Sterling the biggest penalty his lawyers will allow, and he has a lot of options, as ESPN’s Lester Munson has outlined. The eyes of the world are on him. And, unlike almost all other league crises that require fines or suspensions, people who never watched a single NBA game this year, or maybe even in their lifetime, are waiting for Silver to make Sterling pay.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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