Donald Sterling would be allowed to continue as a racist owner of an NBA franchise so long as he wasn't going to cost his fellow owners money. But the moment his predilections came spilling out from beneath his white sheet they became expensive to the rest of the NBA's most exclusive club, breaking Rule No. 1 in the penthouse posse.
"Thou shall pay your own bills and never cost me a dime," is the first commandment (and really the only one) in the big book of professional sports ownership.
Money is the only way to get in the club. And costing the rest of the boys and girls money is the only way to get bounced.
Call me cynical, but Donald Sterling has been a known racist for a long time, and his ownership of the Clippers has never been contested. The rest of the NBA's owners may have taken notice and even turned collective noses up a bit at the sight of his tawdry slumlord dealings when they hit the pages of the broadsheets and tabs. But kick him out? Get rid of him? That's a bit severe, don't you think, old boy.ã
It's highly unlikely Sterling is the only racist owner of a major sports franchise. Chances are one or two, maybe more, hold views many fans would find equally repulsive. Homophobic? You betcha. Sexist? Undoubtedly. Some could even have substance abuse issues. None of that would cost an owner his or her membership. Only money can ring that bell.
Sterling and all his peccadilloes were more than welcome to stay in the club until they began to cost the league and its owners money. That's beyond the pale, mate. Somewhere along the line of leaving the cognac decanter dry. You kill it, you fill it, frat boy.
More than a dozen sponsorship deals have already been cancelled in the wake of Sterling's slurring and more were surely to come. The bleeding had started, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver used his powers and a lifetime ban to apply a tourniquet.
But he couldn't cauterize the wound. Only ownership, with its ability to force Sterling from the league, could do so.
Silver says he has the full support of his owners, and he expects them to do as he wishes and force Sterling to sell. Why such confidence from a rookie commissioner?
The NBA is a TV league taking in close to $1 billion a year under its current but soon-to-expire broadcast deal. Networks make their money selling ads and when the product they air crosses certain lines, and racism is one of those lines, they get squeamish.
Advertisers pressure networks. Networks pressure content producers. Change happens. That's what you saw on Tuesday.
This wasn't going away and Silver, through discussions with former NBAer and current Sacramento mayor cum player advocate Kevin Johnson, would have been able to gauge player reaction going forward.
Was a player boycott in the offing? League-wide protests?
Were major sponsors about to flee? Did networks executives have a sense that huge advertisers were growing uncomfortable spending money on NBA broadcasts?
While Silver hired out the investigation of Sterling, he was no doubt conducting one of his own to determine the potential financial repercussions his owners could face.
At the end of the day, that's Silver's top priority, to protect the investment of his franchise owners. That security had been breached.
Silver, as commissioner of the NBA, doesn't stand in front of the world and announce he's urging his collective ownership to cull one of their own from the herd unless he knows 100 per cent what is their response.
If ownership now comes back and says Sterling can stay, they brand themselves as fellow racists and open the door to similar sponsorship bans the Clippers are now enduring.
Silver needed the correct response to have any authority going forward and not have his office deteriorate into little more than a cash counter from which owners would pick up ever-shrinking network cheques. The commissioner's office needs to stand for something and Silver needed to preserve the concept of a moral high ground.
Explaining in very clear terms what the dollars and cents effect the continued presence of Donald Sterling would have on the NBA drove home the required point.
Yes, Sterling is repugnant and it's a good thing he'll soon be gone. But Sterling isn't leaving the party because he's a racist. He's leaving because he became too expensive to keep around.