Donald Sterling's Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Apology

Scroll down for two updates, including a rather jaw-dropping video.

Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers who was caught making racist remarks on audiotape last month, attempted to apologize during an interview with Anderson Cooper that will air on CNN tonight (excerpts have already been released).

Someone should tell Sterling that apologies are supposed to make things better, not worse.

Sterling, you might remember, instructed his girlfriend not to bring black people to his basketball games. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the 80-year-old told his 31-year-old girlfriend. “Do you have to?”

I wouldn’t have advised Mr. Sterling to proceed with the interview in the first place. If he insisted, I would have made clear that he had only one main message: “I said some horrible things, I have some outdated beliefs, and I hurt a lot of people. I am deeply sorry to everyone who I hurt. I will spend every one of my remaining days on this earth trying to be a better man and do some good.”

Well, that would have been the sensible approach. Instead, Mr. Sterling dug an even deeper hole for himself, offering the worst high-profile public apology since Paula Deen. Here are a few things he did wrong:

1. He Played The Victim

Mr. Sterling blamed his ex-girlfriend for “baiting” him into making his comments: “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things.” Sorry to break it to you, Mr. Sterling, but she didn’t. She may have been laying a trap for you—but you voluntarily jumped into it and created a mess of your own making. If you don’t think racist thoughts, no trap can make you suddenly spout them.

2. He Offered a Conditional Apology

When asked whether he had apologized to Magic Johnson (Sterling had instructed his girlfriend not to bring him to basketball games), Sterling said, “If I said anything wrong, I’m sorry.” If? There’s no redemption without confession. He’s clueless.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

3. He Attacked Magic Johnson…Again!

Out of everything in the interview excerpts, Sterling’s comments about a target of his original invective—Magic Johnson—was absolutely jaw-dropping: “Has he done everything he could to help minorities? I don’t think so…I just don’t think he is a good example for the children of Los Angeles.” What Mr. Sterling thinks he can gain by attacking a widely respected African American man is baffling. With those comments, Sterling reinforced his image as an out-of-touch man clinging to long-buried ideas. 

4. He’s Aiming For The Wrong Audience

Sterling is right that the team owners will ultimately cast the vote that decides his fate: “The people who are going to decide my fate, I think, are not the media, not the player’s union, but the NBA [owners].” But he seems not to understand that their votes will be swayed, in large measure, by public and player sentiment. It’s probably too late to sway them anyway—but slighting critical stakeholders will only add 500 pounds to his already Herculean lift.

A JAW-DROPPING UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

It turns out that CNN didn’t include the most jaw-dropping moment of the interview in the advance excerpts. Speaking about why he believed Magic Johnson isn’t a role model for kids, Donald Sterling said: “That he would go do what he did and get AIDS, I mean, come on.” (Remember: that was in 1991.)

Sterling’s dismissive sneering toward Magic Johnson didn’t end there. He blasted Johnson by saying, “He acts so holy. I mean, he made love to every girl in every city in America, and he has AIDS.” He culminated that rant by accusing Johnson of not doing enough to help the black community: “He doesn’t do anything.”

Sterling then said something incredibly inflammatory, claiming that Jews lend money to other Jews to develop businesses but that African Americans d0n’t do the same. “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans, maybe I’ll get in trouble again, they don’t want to help anybody.” (That was something he said voluntarily in an interview apologizing for racism!) To top things off, Sterling accused Anderson Cooper of being a bigger racist than he is.

In writing this blog for four years, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

In being a professional media trainer for more than a decade, I’ve never seen someone blow an apology this badly.

There’s no amount of hyperbole that could overstate how awful this was. If Mr. Sterling thought this interview was going to rehabilitate him, he’s delusional.

UPDATE: May 12, 2014, 9:16 p.m.

I have a feeling that media trainers and crisis communications professionals will be dissecting this interview for years. But one other critical takeaway can be drawn now.

Sterling’s goal for this interview should have been to apologize sincerely and unreservedly to everyone he hurt. That’s it. There can be no forgiveness before contrition.

Instead, Sterling’s lack of discipline allowed personal animus to rule the day. Magic Johnson was tangential to this story. Yes, Donald Sterling said on tape that he didn’t want Magic Johnson coming to his games —but all Sterling had to do now was say, “That was a dumb thing to say, and I’m sorry.”

Sometimes people scoff at the idea of PR pros or attorneys sitting in with clients during these types of interviews. Sterling didn’t have one. Their value likely seems a lot clearer now.

What did you think of this interview? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.