Why is Donald Sterling banned from the NBA? Explaining the racist comments caught on tape in 2014 scandal

In 2014, then-Clippers governor Donald Sterling was at the center of a scandal that sent shockwaves throughout the world of sports.

As the 3-seed Clippers began their pursuit of an NBA title, audio surfaced of Sterling making racist comments about Black people attending games in Los Angeles. Given the nature and timing of his comments, the Clippers franchise was under a microscope as their governor faced warranted scrutiny, and the team looked to maintain focus to compete.

In the middle of LA’s first-round series with Golden State, Sterling received a rare lifetime ban from the Clippers and NBA, a ruling that has not been reversed in the 10 years since.

Why is Sterling banned from the NBA? Here is a look back at what transpired a decade ago.

Why is Donald Sterling banned from NBA?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or the NBA on April 29, 2014.

The league’s official release stated the discipline was “based on the Commissioner’s conclusion that Mr. Sterling violated league rules through his expressions of offensive and hurtful views, the impact of which has been widely felt throughout the league.”

In addition to the ban, Sterling was fined $2.5 million.

Donald Sterling tape

On April 25, 2014, TMZ Sports released audio of Sterling making racist comments in a recorded conversation with then-mistress V. Stiviano. In the recording, Sterling expressed that he did not want Stiviano bringing Black people to Clippers games.

Sterling’s comments were in response to the social media activity of Stiviano which included an Instagram photo with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

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In response, the NBA offered this statement: “We are in the process of conducting a full investigation into the audio recording obtained by TMZ.  The remarks heard on the recording are disturbing and offensive, but at this time we have no further information.”

Donald Sterling racist comments

Sterling’s racist tirade to Stiviano included the following statements:

  • “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with Black people. Do you have to?”
  • “You can sleep with [Black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
  • “I’m just saying, in your lousy f—ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with Black people.”
  • “Don’t put [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

When did Donald Sterling sell the Clippers?

The NBA, Shelly Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust reached an agreement to sell the Clippers to Steve Ballmer on May 30, 2014. The NBA Board of Governors approved the sale, paving the way for Ballmer to become the Clippers’ Governor.

After months of legal proceedings, the sale closed on Aug. 12, 2014. 

How much did Donald Sterling get for Clippers sale?

Ballmer purchased the Clippers from Sterling for $2 billion, a then-record sale for an NBA franchise.

The sum represented quite a return for Sterling, who purchased the Clippers for $12.5 million in 1981. The sale of the Clippers reset the valuation of professional sports franchises in and outside the NBA.

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Donald Sterling scandal timeline

  • April 24, 2014: Clippers defeat Warriors, 98-96 in Game 3 of the NBA Playoffs to take a 2-1 series lead.
  • April 25, 2014: TMZ Sports obtains and releases audio of Sterling making racist comments in a recorded conversation with then-mistress V. Stiviano
  • April 26, 2014: The NBA opens a full investigation into the audio recording obtained by TMZ
  • April 27, 2014: Ahead of Game 4, the Clippers protest Sterling by turning team-issued tops inside out during pregame warmups. Players considered boycotting the game. Golden State won Game 4, 118-97.
  • April 29, 2014: NBA commissioner Adam Silver imposes a lifetime ban on Sterling, barring him from any association with the Clippers or NBA. The NBA Board of Governors is also urged to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team.
  • May 3, 2014: Clippers advance to Western Conference Semifinals with a 126-121 win over Warriors in Game 7 of the opening round.
  • May 11, 2014: Sterling’s then-estranged wife Shelly tells ABC’s Barbara Walters she would “absolutely” fight to keep her stake in the Clippers as the pair was headed for divorce.
  • May 11, 2014: The NBA shared this response to Shelly Sterling: “If a controlling owner’s interest is terminated by a 3/4 vote, all other team owners’ interests are automatically terminated as well. It doesn’t matter whether the owners are related as is the case here.”
  • May 12, 2014: Sterling claims he was baited into his comments during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In the interview, he refuted claims of being racist and disparaged Magic Johnson.
  • May 12, 2014: Commissioner Silver releases a statement in response to the CNN interview. In addition to an apology to Johnson, Silver reiterates that the NBA Board of Governors is working to remove Sterling as quickly as possible.
  • May 15, 2014: Clippers eliminated from NBA Playoffs after Game 6 loss to Thunder.
  • May 27, 2014: The NBA receives responses from Donald and Shelly Sterling to the charge to terminate the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers. 
  • May 30, 2014: The NBA, Shelly Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust reach an agreement to sell the Clippers to Steve Ballmer.
  • June 3, 2014: NBA Board of Governors votes to officially terminate Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers.
  • Aug. 12, 2014: The Clippers sale closes, officially making Ballmer the franchise’s governor.
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