Yet the only apparent play available to the NBA would seem to be suspending Sterling and then trying to wear him down to the point he gives in and agrees to sell the Clippers for a massive windfall. Sterling purchased the franchise in 1981 for a reported $12.5 million, but this is a league in which the small-market Milwaukee Bucks, in desperate need of a new, modern arena, were just sold for $550 million.
Q: What do Sterling's fellow owners really think about this mess?
A: They're under fire, too. The league's owners are facing the same questions, along with the retired Stern, posed by Johnson on behalf of the union Sunday: Why wasn't Sterling punished for any of his previous transgressions?
Stern's well-chronicled and longstanding commitment to social justice makes it difficult to believe he didn't want to do more. The working assumption in league circles has been that Sterling repeatedly dodged serious discipline because sordid accusations, court wrangles with former coaches and employees over money, and other assorted out-of-court settlements don't equate to convictions, and because Sterling didn't otherwise overtly break any league rules.
But now Sterling's peers want action. A handful of them, in the wake of what suddenly ranks as Sterling's most public scandal, have already taken the unusual step of publicly expressing their dismay with the league's senior owner, from old-guard veterans such as San Antonio's Peter Holt and Miami's Micky Arison to relative newcomers such as Sacramento's Vivek Ranadive.
"If @TMZ recording is true," Ranadive tweeted Saturday night, "we must have zero tolerance. Fully support commish Silver @NBA."
Then Ranadive added Sunday: "I was shocked. Those are shameful, reprehensible words. And if they are authenticated then I believe we should have zero tolerance, and I have full faith that the commissioner will do the right thing."
Charlotte's Michael Jordan on Sunday issued the lengthiest statement from any rival owner to date, which caused quite a stir given his historical reluctance to speak out on such issues when he was winning six championships as the league's on-court king.
"I look at this from two different perspectives -- as a current owner and former player," Jordan wrote. "As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I'm completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA -- or anywhere else -- for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level."
Behind the scenes, sources say, there is even louder dismay from Sterling's peers, especially from the new-school owners who are paying such increasingly high prices for franchises -- and are worrying how much damage this is doing to the league's brand.
The owners are also aware of how upset and indignant players throughout the league are. Any show of support for Sterling by an owner or the league, any shred of leniency, will be noticed by every player in the league, not just the fuming Clippers.
"I'm sure the NBA will come down hard on [Sterling]," one source close to the situation said. "It wouldn't surprise me if we never see him again [at an NBA game]."