By Scott Malone
NEW YORK (Reuters) - National Basketball Association officials on Tuesday will try to calm public outrage over racist comments attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who observers said could face a long suspension from the game.
The league moved quickly to address the scandal, which broke over the weekend when Website TMZ.com published a 10-minute recording in which a voice said to be Sterling's criticized a friend for associating with "black people."
The news prompted a wave of outrage from athletes, coaches and fans of the NBA, which was a leader in racial integration in U.S. sports and where most of the players are black. One after another on Monday, team sponsors such as auto dealer CarMax Inc, Virgin America, State Farm, Kia Motors America, music mogul P. Diddy's water brand, AQUAHydrate, Red Bull and Yokohama Tire all announced they were stepping back from the team.
Several advertisers have asked to move their commercials out of the Clippers broadcast on Prime Ticket, the 21st Century Fox regional sports network. President Barack Obama, the first black president and a basketball fan, called the comments "incredibly offensive racist statements," while U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner described them as "reprehensible."
"I don’t know the bylaws of the league, but he has to go," filmmaker Spike Lee said on CNN late Monday. "He's tainted all the other 29 partners, he's tainted the league, and he’s tainted America. He sees his players as slaves."
The crisis is the first major test of Adam Silver, who took over as NBA commissioner in February, succeeding David Stern.
Silver has scheduled a news conference for 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) in New York following a league investigation of Sterling, the longest-tenured owner in the NBA who as a property owner has been sued in the past for discrimination in housing.
Sterling has not spoken publicly since the comments were first reported late on Friday. The NBA's constitution, which is not a public document, is believed to give Silver broad authority in deciding how to handle the issue, though his moves will need the support of team owners.
"My guess is we're going to look at a severe suspension - he could be suspended indefinitely - and fined up to $2.5 million," said Robert Boland, chairman of the sports management department at New York University.
A lifetime suspension would effectively make Sterling a silent owner of the team, no longer involved in daily management and no longer a governor of the league, with a caretaker named to run the organization.
It would be far less likely for the NBA to try to strip Sterling of ownership, Boland said. Sterling bought Clippers in 1981 at a time when basketball was far less commercially successful than it is today, and the franchise could now be worth as much as $800 million, Boland estimated.
Another observer said it was tricky to predict what the NBA will do, with the owners, some of whom invested hundreds of millions of dollars to buy their franchises, wary of taking any steps that could jeopardize their future rights.
"You have the obvious, and accurate, and appropriate outrage with the situation but you have to balance that with league policies and legal ramifications," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
"When something like this blows up over the weekend and you have to reach out to your stakeholders, whether it's fans, owners, TV partners, sometimes that takes a little time," Carter said.
The recording on TMZ.com appears to be part of an argument between Sterling and a model who uses the name V. Stiviano about photographs posted to Instagram. "People call you and tell you that I have black people on my Instagram. And it bothers you," the voice said to be Stiviano's says.
The woman also notes in the conversation that she is of Latino and black heritage.
"Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo ... broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" the voice said to be Sterling's says. The same voice is heard telling the woman not to post photos of herself with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former Los Angeles Laker. "And don't bring him to my games, OK?"
Basketball stars ranging from Kobe Bryant, whose Los Angeles Lakers play in the same arena as the Clippers, to former player and current mayor of Sacramento, California, Kevin Johnson have criticized the comments, with Bryant saying on Twitter there is "no way" Sterling should continue to own the team.
In 2003 Sterling was sued in federal court in Los Angeles for housing discrimination, with plaintiffs' charging that he told his staff he to rent to Asian tenants but not black or Hispanic people.
The controversy is pulling attention away from the NBA playoffs, where the Clippers are tied two games each with the Golden State Warriors and game five scheduled in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Before Sunday's game, Clippers players staged a protest, turning their warm-up jerseys inside-out to hide the team name.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool)