I've been trying to ignore this story but it's obvious I can't at this point. Every major sports outlet has written about it, including my colleague Andrew Sharp at SBNation. My NBA editor is asking me why I haven't posted about it. I guess I'm going to have to post about it.
Here's what we know:
(1) Darrell Bailey, the erstwhile Clipper Darrell, is a shameless self-promoter and
(2) The Clippers organization is completely tone deaf.
And the problem I'm having is that there is nothing newsworthy in either of those statements.
The 'story' such as it is, is that the Clippers have asked Bailey to stop calling himself Clipper Darrell. They may also have asked him to stop leading cheers at Staples Center and maybe a few other things, but that's all a little difficult to discern. You see, part of the problem here is that this 'news' is all based on the original reporting of FishbowlLA in an exclusive interview with Bailey, and on a post from Bailey himself on his website. Does anybody see any potential bias issue with any of that?
The story immediately began trending on twitter, and everyone and their dog decided to weigh in. How could the Clippers do this? He's the best fan in the NBA, giving the team free publicity, and this is how they treat him? Donald Sterling is a jerk! It just proves the Clippers can even screw up a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin! It didn't help that players like Paul and Griffin and DeAndre Jordan sided with Darrell, at least via their supportive tweets.
Of course, any college Marketing major from Branding 101 would tell you that the Clippers have always had a potential problem with Clipper Darrell. He's not an employee of the team and they have no official affiliation with him. He's a guy who bought season tickets, put on a flashy suit and starting leading cheers at games. There's no denying that he has been a great ambassador for the team over the past decade, a decade during which they didn't have a lot of great ambassadors. It may be true, as Bailey says in his "I AM DEVASTATED" post, that it was the media that dubbed him "Clipper" Darrell -- but it's also true that he ran with it. His "official" website is called ClipperDarrell.com after all.
Ever wonder why this humble blog is called "Clips Nation" and not "Clipper Nation"? Well, it's because six years ago, when I had zero readership, I knew that if someday I got a little bigger, I didn't want the Clippers and the NBA to tell me to change the name of the blog. It's a brand people -- there are rules.
Part of the outrage being leveled at the Clippers is over the timing. Just when things are starting to go well, they do this stupid thing! Darrell was there when the team was last in the division -- now that they're first, the Clippers get full of themselves and kick him to the curb! How dare they?
But really, doesn't it make sense? Yes, they are having some success. Yes, they are playing like a real team on the basketball court. That they might want to pay more attention to their brand at the same time is not surprising.
Having said that, let's not pretend that the Clippers handled this well. They rarely handle public relations issues well, and as usual they've made a mess of this situation, at least so far.
Bearing in mind that Darrell launched the first salvo in this PR war with his FishbowlLA interview and blog post, the Clippers response was, as it always is, hamfisted. The second line of the Clippers official statement on the matter says "[Bailey's] claims are absurd and unfounded." Well, it seems like the media are viewing this differently. Had the Clippers sent out essentially the same statement, only opened with "Bailey's claims are the result of a misunderstanding in a situation involving complex branding issues" they might have been able to get out in front of the issue. Treating Darrell like a bad guy is a huge mistake -- Darrell is the most visible fan in the NBA, and the Clippers organization should be humble and apologetic, while at the same time making their case, in dealing with him.
Instead, they've now given everyone another chance to dust off the old "Donald Sterling is a big time scumbag" stories. You know 'em; you love 'em. Heck, I've written a fair number of them myself. He is. He's a scumbag. And Dan Gilbert and Robert Sarver and Paul Allen and Jerry Buss are all saints, right?
Let's all bear in mind what actually happened here. In either version of the story, be it on FishbowlLA or the Clippers' official statement, the Clippers organization told Darrell that there were certain things he could not do as "Clipper Darrell" because had no official affiliation with the team. Here's how they worded it on FishbowlLA: "[The Clippers] informed him that the organization didn't need him doing stories or speaking to the media on behalf of the team." Here's how the Clippers said it in the official statement: "[We had] conversations concerning his inappropriate use of the Clippers' team name and trademark for his own unmonitored commercial gain."
In this situation, either the parties can find a middle ground and co-exist or not. Darrell could have said, OK, I'll take the Clippers logo off of certain items, but I'd still like to be Clipper Darrell, and maybe that would have been acceptable to the Clippers. But the idea that the Clippers in some way demanded that he immediately cease and desist from calling himself Clipper Darrell doesn't seem to have any basis, not even in the 'original' reporting on FishbowlLA. "According to Bailey, the Clippers offered him an additional free season ticket if he dropped the Clipper nickname." Excuse me? This is the heart of this massive controversy? This is the smoking gun? They offered him free stuff? It doesn't say they threatened to sue him, it doesn't say they ripped his blue and red suit in half. It kind of sounds a little bit like they, you know, kind of ... well ... asked him ... nicely.
There's no question that the Clippers are a tone deaf organization. They have a history as a cheap organization as well, though frankly that characterization hasn't been particularly accurate for over a decade. But they're just as tone deaf as ever, as when they stopped paying former coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy at the same time that they were trying to convince free agent LeBron James to sign with the team.
This is a non-story. The Clippers will move on without Clipper Darrell. And Darrell will become "Super Fan Darrell" or some such, just as the San Diego Chicken became the Famous Chicken. And everyone will look for the next opportunity to write their "Donald Sterling is a scumbag" stories.