Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the most hated man in America right now is the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling.
Sterling, who allegedly made racist remarks while recorded telling his ex-girlfriend to not bring black people to Clippers games even one of the great players of all time, Magic Johnson, has seen the attention of basketball fans shift from his team’s series with the Golden State Warriors. He is clearly unable to confront the overwhelmingly negative sentiment being shown by the public, ranging from ridicule to outrage.
I don’t personally know if Sterling made the comments he is being accused of. I do know that his estranged girlfriend is widely being reported as having recorded the tape, but her involvement does not seem to matter much to most people angry with Sterling. Sterling does have a long history of being accused of horribly racist conduct. His brand image has been damaged for a long time and that doesn’t do him any favors.
You won’t find many, if any, who think Sterling is innocent. As far as I can tell, the best that Sterling can hope for at the moment is that calls for his tape to be analyzed gain traction. But even then it would be no surprise if he fouls out. You don’t need to be found guilty in court to be tried and sentenced in the court of the public. Right now the institution that best exemplifies this is social media channels.
Red light, green light
There’s an example that I like to share with people regarding crisis communications. The traffic light metaphor. It’s simple, but it makes sense.
If you look at a traffic light with red, yellow and green signals, you can actually use the colors to identify different groups of people during a crisis.
The red lights are the people who never agree with you and are against you.
The green lights are the people who agree with you and support you.
The yellow lights are the people who are not sure of which group to join.
In a crisis what should you do? That’s right, gather up your green lights and established a way of convincing the yellow lights to join you. There is no point in trying to convince the red lights to join your side because there it would be a waste of time – they won’t ever change.
I’m not interested so much in this article whether Sterling actually said racist things as how this social media battle – and it is a battle – is evolving.
Let us just get it out of the way at the beginning. Sterling is currently losing big time on the social front. He is not rolling out statements to convince the yellow lights, whether online or off, to join his side. Sterling seems to not have any green lights on his side to convince others either. He and his team are not addressing old concerns about alleged racist behavior, saying that those incidents have been settled and are over – although the old stories are out in the open and can no longer be avoided. He is not yet dealing with them the way he needs to if he wants to recover his reputation.
I don’t know if Sterling has any kind of site to provide information in the form of a FAQ or anything. Most of all, Sterling does not seem to have any players on his side, even from the Clippers, the team he owns. Team representatives are saying that they do not know if the tape is real or not, but that his ex-girlfriend was the subject of a lawsuit for trying to embezzle money from Sterling. The last point hurts the legitimacy of the tape, but I would not be surprised if many people were thinking that they would also want to embezzle money from Sterling after all he has allegedly said. The sympathy then falls on his ex-girlfriend’s side, or at least if sentiment is overall neutral for her, opinion is still solidly against Sterling.
There’s a point at which facts can be ignored or used to toss even more fuel on a situation, and Sterling seems to certainly have passed that point.
Seeing how badly this crisis is being addressed by Sterling almost makes the next part too painful to cover. Sterling’s problems mentioned above extend from traditional PR all the way to quick-shifting social media responses. He seems to either not have invested much in it or care.
At this rate this game of one-on-one is going to be over faster than Kevin Durant or LeBron James stepping up to a JV high school team. He seems like he doesn’t have any plan for isolating red lights, drawing in yellow lights or reinforcing his green light supporters. If he has any green lights that is.
The people who are on one side against Sterling cover such a widely-encompassing racial range that trying to break it down by that measure is pointless. This is clearly a national movement emerging that cuts across many backgrounds. It is the extension of well-established anti-racist movements and ideals, and therefore has many pieces already in place to address the situation.
All the following approaches reinforce green light supporters and give yellow lights a reason to join. None of them seem to waste energy on replying red light opponents, only isolating them.
Big guns: ESPN reported that Magic Johnson, one of the people Sterling had allegedly made disparaging comments about, said that Sterling “shouldn’t own a team anymore.” The league should “come down hard on him.” Michael Jordan said that if he was a player that Sterling’s comments would completely enrage him.
These are athletes highly respected by basketball fans as living legends, but if that was not enough then yesterday President Barrack Obama condemned the recording as well.
The statements made by these three individuals, are not generally made directly on social media, but across a wide range of traditional and digital media. Although it seems that journalist trawl social media for stories more often these days (a topic in itself for another day), the individuals who made these statements are at the level that their statements resonate with very large members of the public, and people will mobilize out of respect for them if they feel that their role models or leaders are being attacked.
Twitter appeals: NBA players, past and present, across Twitter are speaking against Sterling’s alleged comments. These players are not only in perfect position to fan the flames of outrage, but they are doing it as well. Sterling is in no position to inhibit all these players, especially when they don’t play for him. Athletes have enormous followings online and can mobilize communities, especially if they are united (hint: if you want to get people behind your cause, see if there is anyone with an online following who might be interested in hearing about it.) Suffice to say, Sterling does not have any support like this.
Fans: That the NBA players are going after Sterling on Twitter is especially damaging to him. Although people across racial lines are outraged, Twitter is a battle front. This social channel has high numbers of well-linked users from the Latino and African American communities, which naturally see the recording as a personal attack. However, these groups are welcoming whites as well, not lumping them with the owner. There are anti-Sterling groups on Facebook and Reddit, but Twitter is really where the action is happening right now, and it’s happening in a way which is mutually affirming for the participants. If you want to defend yourself during a crisis, you want your green lights and yellow lights interacting exactly like this, in a free-flowing self-policing storm that drowns out out opposing voices.
With as many as half of user accounts being dormant and screen names being very easy to change, Twitter is very difficult to police or monitor for criticism. Sterling could not face a worse place to initiate a social media battle, especially since he has next to no natural presence there already. His being an owner is not an excuse for not being strong on Twitter. Mark Cuban is also an owner and has a very vibrant Twitter presence. Just check out how many people follow him on Twitter, his brand goes well beyond just being an owner of a basketball team.
Clipper players: Sterling’s players are not showing that they are standing by him. In yesterday’s playoff game with the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers all wore their warm up tops inside out (check out a whole stack of such photos here!). The photos provided a powerful image of opposition to Sterling that quickly spread across the net. Such images are far more memorable than images of Sterling sitting on the sideline with his ex-girlfriend. When you want to make an impact in social media, have at least a photo to show what you mean! People remember photos that pack emotion, not legal statement that look like they were written to cover ones tracks.
I am not sure if the NBA will force Sterling to give up ownership of the Clippers. It has happened before in baseball, and I don't know why it couldn't happen in NBA action either. If his past is any record, he will probably get a slap on the wrist or buy his way out of this. But if pressure continues to increase he could ultimately be forced to cave in for business reasons. A lot of things could happen that still have not been decided yet.
Even in the event that Sterling has not said what his detractors accuse him of doing, my guess is that his ship is probably already sunk, but at 80 years old and his fortune made I wonder if he will care. One thing is for sure, he probably had no clue what he was about walking into just few weeks ago, but in a way, neither do we know what will happen.
What do you think will happen next? Is social media helping or hurting this debate? Sound off in the comments, I almost always reply within 24 hours!