If you're rich enough, it's unlikely anything all that bad will happen to you. Money cocoons you from consequences most of us live in fear of, like unemployment, mounting bills, and bankruptcy; if anyone wants to hurt the very rich, they have to go through several walls of lawyers first. So yesterday, when a California judge ruled that Donald Sterling wasn't mentally competent—and therefore couldn't control the trust that owns the Los Angeles Clippers and block the team's sale to Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer—it wasn't the end of the world for the embattled, embittered real estate mogul.
The sale of Sterling's prize possession will begin to go through against his will now, which must rankle the man, but he's going to keep on fighting: He's appealed yesterday's decision, and he's still got two pending lawsuits against the NBA and his estranged wife Shelly Sterling, who he accuses of scheming to take away the Clippers from him. He's 80 years old, and presumably he's got enough anger and cash to go on battling his enemies in court until he dies and leaves behind a tangled mess of ill will and legal bills. If the worst happens—if the sale is finalized and he runs out of lawsuits to file—he'll get a fresh pile of money from Ballmer. Nothing that bad is going to happen to him, no matter what he deserves.
The judge's ruling was a victory for the NBA, which now doesn't have to deal with the PR disaster of having the country's most notorious racist, a man who got caught on tape saying all manner of horrible and disgusting things, as one of its owners. It's also a victory for Ballmer, who gets a basketball team to play with, and Shelly Sterling, who was called a "pig" in court by her husband and is presumably savoring the hell out of this moment. Her lawyer was in a jubilant mood, telling the press, "It was one woman who stood up against her husband, who had the courage to go to court and prevailed. So for the cynics out there, sometimes it works out OK. This is a Hollywood ending."
In one sense, that's right—you can imagine the movie version of Sterling slumping in his limo on the way to his estate, bowed by defeat and the knowledge that the public, the NBA, and his wife have all rejected him. Cue the carefully synthesized strings.
Remember, though, that the people running him out of the league aren't doing so because he is a vicious racist—though he is—they're doing so because his vicious racism surfaced in public and could not be denied. The Sterling brouhaha was never about prejudice, it was about optics.
After all, anyone who cared to google Sterling could find information about the lawsuits he's faced for discriminating against minorities who tried to move into his housing developments and the subsequent payments he had to make. (He never officially admitted wrongdoing, because in the American legal system the very rich can usually get off by forking over a hefty settlement.) It's been common knowledge for years that Sterling is a racist creep who says awful shit, a villainous, oversexed Carl Hiaasen caricature who talks about limousine blowjobs when asked simple questions about his handwriting during depositions. All of that was tolerated by the other NBA owners, but not the viral audio of him expressing views he's no doubt had for some time. Sterling didn't suddenly become loathsome overnight, nor did the world suddenly discover his loathsomeness—it just got to a point where it could no longer be ignored. When he was banned for life and the Clippers' coach and players talked about refusing to work for him it wasn't a reaction to the racist shit in his head, it was a reaction to his uniquely toxic brand.
If you want to sympathize with Sterling for a moment, imagine how he sees the people who conspired to bring him down: the other owners, no angels themselves, who hate a scandal above all else; the woman who recorded him without his knowledge and leaked the tape, who wasn't a muckraking journalist but a pissed-off girlfriend; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who had only held the office for three months and wanted some good headlines by throwing him out into the cold; his estranged wife, who was surely looking for payback in court for his years of infidelity. No wonder he's filing lawsuit after lawsuit just to spite them and cost them money and time—they're opportunistic and motivated by a cocktail of base motivations just like him, but he's the one who gets metaphorically tarred and feathered in public. Surely there's something unfair about all that.
And there might be. But Sterling—as he slouches back toward his private life of extravagance, where he'll remain out of the media's eye until the gleeful obituaries start rolling in—is the last one who should be complaining about unfairness.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.