This April 21 photo shows Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attending the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center in Los Angeles. / Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Donald Sterling's psyche is getting the once-over.
As the embattled 80-year-old co-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers continues to shock, questions are being raised as to what's behind the racist comments that so far have caused Sterling to be banned from the NBA for life and his ownership of the team imperiled.
Is it because he's rich and has long surrounded himself with those who dare not disagree, much like some celebrities who've gotten themselves into trouble because they didn't have a reality check? Is he a narcissist as so many high-powered rich and famous? Or, as his estranged wife Shelly Sterling suggests, is he showing signs of dementia? Communication and psychological experts have their take from afar.
"He got caught and he's being publicly excoriated," says clinical psychologist
Joseph Burgo of Chapel Hill, N.C., who cautions that he can't diagnose Sterling just by what's he's seen and heard. However, Burgo suggests narcissism as the root of the behavior that may be the billionaire's undoing.
"The racist is a particular kind of narcissist who boosts his self-image by feeling superior to other racial groups," says Burgo, whose new book, out next year, is called The Narcissist You Know.
Burgo, author of the 2012 book Why Do I Do That?, says Sterling's interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on Monday demonstrates all three defense mechanisms that narcissists exhibit -- blaming, contempt and indignant anger.
"He says he made a terrible mistake but he doesn't really seem to feel sorry. He rather feels sorry for himself. He blames his girlfriend for trapping or setting him up. This apologetic interview then becomes this attack on Magic Johnson. He's contemptuous of him. He blames everybody for everything. He doesn't really own anything," Burgo says. "As a narcissist, he's trying to get himself off the hook by expressing contempt for the people who got him into this mess rather than taking real responsibility."
Psychotherapist Carl Alasko of Monterey, Calif., suggests that the comments Sterling made that led to the NBA action last month shows just how often even smart, successful people say "very stupid things for public consumption."
"He was saying things that were flatly racist by all means," says Alasko, author of Say This, Not That, a book published in January that focuses on effective communication. "A large percentage of the time, people are saying the wrong thing and the more 'trusting' the relationship, the fewer filters we have and the less on guarded we are."
Geriatrician Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, says he believes age could well be a factor in Sterling's most recent statements.
"The NBA has cited a long history of bigoted behavior in the past. But what is different is he did his best to keep that to himself in terms of outrageous statements. But now the outrageous statements are coming up," Perls says. "I'm guessing the conversation that came out with Anderson Cooper about the awful things he had to say about Magic Johnson would never had been said if he can been completely cognitively intact at a younger age."
Perls, director of the university's New England Centenarian Study, the largest comprehensive study of centenarians in the world, says "there's no way that dementia is associated with new racism and bigotry. It's much more likely that was always there."
"In my clinical experience, I have seen burgeoning cognitive impairment lead to people being less reserved and cautious in their comments and have less insight into the potential ramifications of the things they might say," he says.
However, Burgo says the dementia suggestion from his estranged wife was "convenient."
"She's trying to get him off the hook so they won't lose their franchise," he says.
Burgo agrees that living in a bubble and not being called to task by those who work for you may exacerbate Sterling's being out-of-touch with reality. But he says "that kind of wealth and privilege encourages a sense of entitlement and being above-it-all. It's a contributing factor but not the cause."
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