Will the L.A. Clippers End Up in Shelly Sterling’s Hands?

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May 5, 2014; CNN

One Sterling is out, but another is still there at the helm of the Los Angeles Clippers. Shelly Sterling announced that she approves of the NBA’s decision to throw the book at her husband Donald for his racist comments.

“We also agreed at that time that, as a next step, both the league and the team should work together to find some fresh, accomplished executive leadership for the Clippers,” Shelly Sterling said in a written statement, referring to her conversation with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. NBA executive vice president Mike Bass also issued a statement that said, “The best way to ensure the stability of the team during this difficult situation is to move quickly and install a CEO to oversee the Clippers organization…. The process of identifying that individual is under way.”

That doesn’t sound like an ownership change, but a change in management. Given that Shelly Sterling has been a witness to Donald Sterling’s unusual escapades with a number of women over the years, with stories varying on whether she is or isn’t estranged from him or seeking a divorce, the ownership situation of the Clippers is murky. Even if she does divorce Donald Sterling, the ownership of the team could be caught up in legal proceedings between the two for a long time.

Silver and Bass could be trying to make the best out of a potentially messy legal dynamic, especially since they’ve gotten Shelly Sterling to publicly disassociate herself from her husband’s racist rants and to call for an inclusive image for the team. But is Shelly Sterling, having been a partner to Donald Sterling for the 57 years of their marriage, different than her husband in her beliefs, values, and attitudes toward blacks? The story emerging about Shelly Sterling is that she has been part and parcel of her husband’s noxious attitudes toward persons of color in the Sterling housing developments that, prior to Donald Sterling’s comments to his alleged girlfriend or self-described “archivist,” were the legally documented examples of his Cro-Magnon racial attitudes.

People identified as former friends of the Sterlings have been making statements that Shelly was fully Donald’s partner, sharing not only the management of his business operations, but his racial attitudes. The Daily Mail quoted a self-identified former friend, Cheryl Bogart, slamming Shelly’s image:

“It’s a joke. She’s a liar. I don’t know why the Clippers and manager are sticking up for her, I know Shelly,” Bogart purportedly said. “She’s totally a racist. When you live with someone for that long, how can you not be aware? There are court documents saying she called someone a ‘black m****rf*****r.’”

According to an article in the Jewish Daily Forward, a tenant in a Sterling building claimed in court documents filed in 2009 that Shelly Sterling had called him a “black m*****rf***er,” and a manager at a Sterling property cited her expressing her dislike of “certain ethnic groups” and saying that “the building was filthy because of the Latinos.”

What’s most surprising among the revelations about Shelly Sterling is that she was accused of posing as a city health inspector in order to gain access to a tenant’s apartment, though the tenant figured it out after pondering the notion of a city health inspector accompanied by an entourage. A 2003 document as part of the Housing Rights Center’s suit against the Sterlings not only charged Shelly Sterling with posing as a government official, but with telling tenants that her role as a health inspector required her to record tenants’ ethnicities. It is important to remember that the 2006 Department of Justice litigation charging Donald Sterling with racial discrimination in his rental housing practices was lodged against Donald and Shelly Sterling together.

That seems to go against the grain of what she told the press after the news came out about her husband’s racist statements to his alleged girlfriend. “Our family is devastated by the racist comments made by my estranged husband. My children and I do not share these despicable views or prejudices,” Shelly Sterling said in a statement to TMZ late last month. “We will not let one man’s small-mindedness poison the spirit of the fans and accomplishments of the team in the city we love. We are doing everything in our power to stand by and support our Clippers team.”

Nonprofits have to remember that it is important to dig into the track records and backgrounds of people like Donald and Shelly Sterling bearing charitable gifts—remember, their foundation was a family foundation, not just the private charitable toy of husband Donald. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to many nonprofits what kind of donors they solicit or donations they accept. Perhaps they think that if they use the money for good purposes, it doesn’t matter that the dollars were made by a couple who profited from racial discrimination in their housing rental practices.

Here’s what we think should happen, outside the specifics of the future of the Los Angeles Clippers: The example of the Sterlings, their track record of charitable donations, and the NAACP’s embarrassing stunt of proposing to give the racist Donald Sterling two lifetime achievement awards should spark a major dialogue among nonprofits on what they could and should do—or not do—regarding gift acceptance policies. A panel at the upcoming Council on Foundations annual meeting or the pending Independent Sector annual conference should be convened to discuss “Sterling Lessons: To Accept or Reject Grants from a Dedicated Racist.” We’d attend that one.—Rick Cohen