Lauren Bloom: Sterling's self-serving apology confirmed the worst everyone thinks of him
Bloom: His pleas for forgiveness and self-justification were a blatant bid to keep Clippers
His excuse? He was "baited." She says attacking Magic Johnson is big mistake
Bloom: What he got right: Admitted he said ugly things, hurt people, lawsuit too costly
Editor’s Note: Lauren M. Bloom is an attorney and author of the award-winning book “Art of the Apology: How, When and Why to Give and Accept Apologies.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling dug himself in even deeper during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday night. Sterling purportedly went on CNN to apologize for his appallingly racist rant that V. Stiviano, an attractive young woman whom Sterling calls a “friend,” had audiotaped and released almost two weeks earlier. After the team publicly protested his actions and the NBA fined him and banned him from basketball for life, Sterling had a lot to apologize for, and in the interview with Cooper, he apparently gave it his best shot.
Unfortunately for Sterling, though, he only succeeded in confirming the worst that everyone already thought of him. Sterling’s “apology” was about as bad as it gets.
Although he claimed to be “so apologetic,” his expressions of regret morphed immediately into pleas for forgiveness and self-justification. He cited his 35 years in basketball to argue that he was entitled to “one mistake,” a blatant bid to retain ownership of the Clippers that was apparently based on the erroneous assumption that experience trumps bigotry.
He effectively denied responsibility for his offensive behavior by accusing Stiviano of “baiting him,” as if any provocation could justify his racist diatribe. For some inexplicable reason, he leveled another blistering attack at Magic Johnson, a beloved sports hero whose foundation has raised millions to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and provide mentoring and scholarships for minority students, arguing that Johnson hadn’t done enough for the black community.
Astonishingly, Sterling then blamed Johnson’s advice for his failure to come forward soon after the recordings became public. Sterling is an adult, with access to clocks and calendars. He didn’t need Johnson to tell him that his opportunity to apologize credibly was quickly slipping away.
Although Sterling’s performance Monday night was so utterly abysmal as to call his mental competence into question, the failure of his apology lies not in his delivery but in his intent. Apologies aren’t about public relations, they’re about human relations, and they’re an essential part of maintaining the mutual respect and consideration that people owe to each other no matter how much wealth or power they might have.
An apology can succeed only if it is sincere. To apologize effectively, Sterling would have to be sincerely sorry for the pain he inflicted. Sadly, it was pretty apparent Monday night that he’s not. No amount of self-serving blather could cover up his fundamental indifference to the feelings of those he hurt.
For all his pratfalls Monday night, Sterling got three things right.
First, although he did his best to backpedal, he admitted that he had said the ugly things that Stiviano caught on tape. That has serious implications for the L.A. Clippers and the NBA. Basketball players, like other employees, are entitled to protection from illegal employment discrimination. Sterling may deny being racist, but his words say otherwise, and his continued association with the team would call the intent behind every management action into question. The Clippers and their fans don’t deserve to see the team mired in allegations of discrimination and threats of litigation. Sterling has become a serious legal risk, and for the good of the game, he really needs to step down.
Second, Sterling was right that a protracted lawsuit over his continued ownership of the team would benefit no one. Litigation is rarely the best way to solve problems, and this would be an expensive, ugly fight that no one would win. It was heartening to hear Sterling say that he’ll abide by whatever decision his fellow owners reach. One can only hope that he won’t change his mind.
Third, and most important, Sterling was right when he admitted that he’d hurt a lot of people: his ex-wife, the team, the fans, the NBA and everyone else who believes that racism has no place in a decent society. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the feelings of other people matter, and to deliberately injure other people by pretending that their skin color makes them “inferior” is downright shameful. The words hurt, and the attitude behind them hurts still more.
Sterling has every reason to be sorry for what he said and still sorrier for the unexamined arrogance that led him to say it. He owes a lot of people an apology, but until he gets his mind right, anything he says will simply do more damage. It’s time for Donald Sterling to step away from the Clippers and spend some time examining his prejudices. Until he’s humbled enough to apologize sincerely, though, it would be better for everyone, himself included, if he’d just keep mum.