As the NBA tries to come up with an appropriate response to Donald Sterling’s racist comments, Liam Day points out that, though it’s not always front and center like what the Clippers’ owner said, race and racism are unfortunately part of basketball’s narrative.
I am not quite sure what to make of the sports story of the week, though, for once, the story is of sufficient import to justify the attention it’s getting, which is not often the case. The gossip site TMZ has an audio recording it says is Los Angeles Clipper owner, Donald Sterling, saying some rather wretched things. You can listen for yourself here.
What this story does is highlight race in ways that everyone with a vested interest in sports, particularly the NBA, would rather not acknowledge. One cannot help but notice that African-American men are disproportionately represented on the rosters of NBA teams. As Charles Barkley noted in his comments about what Donald Sterling said, the NBA is a black league.
But one cannot also help but notice, when he or she goes to an NBA game, that the racial composition of the league’s fans does not necessarily reflect that of its players. Donald Sterling made this dichotomy explicit by asking his former girlfriend, a woman of Mexican and African-American descent, to not bring any black acquaintances to Clippers games with her, or take and post photographs on Instagram of herself with other African-Americans.
What a lot of people don’t realize, and what Dave Zirin over at The Nation perfectly captured, is that Donald Sterling has done far worse than say what he said to his ex-girlfriend on the tape that was leaked to TMZ. He has been sued by the federal government twice for discriminatory renting practices at various housing properties he owns, one time settling out of court for $7.5 million, though without admitting any guilt. He was also once sued for discrimination by the former general manager of the Clippers, Elgin Baylor. To be fair to Sterling, he won that case in court, though, as Baylor has always been one of basketball’s true gentleman, I suspect there was some fire in all that smoke.
Reaction was swift and appropriately condemnatory to this latest revelation of Sterling’s racism. Magic Johnson, who was one of the African-Americans in the photos to which Sterling referred, said he wouldn’t attend another Clippers game until Sterling was no longer the team’s owner. Charles Barkley called for Sterling to be suspended. And LeBron James said that he would seriously consider sitting out the remainder of the playoffs if Sterling had been the owner of his Miami Heat, rather than the owner of a prospective NBA Finals opponent.
I’m glad to see LeBron speaking out. The NBA is quite clearly his league now. He is by far the best player in it, and his team looks poised to win its third consecutive championship. The Pacers, who had thought to be Miami’s only serious competition in the Eastern Conference, have looked like anything but competition in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, and the Western Conference teams slug away at each other like primary opponents in a presidential election, while the incumbent Heat cruise to a first-round sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats. As the league’s preeminent player, LeBron should be its leading spokesman, and that will be no less true as the league approaches another potential work stoppage in 2016.
What the Clippers wound up doing as protest was to wear their shooting jerseys inside out during warmups so that the team’s name wasn’t visible. On Twitter, this protest has been described as powerful. Unfortunately, that isn’t a word I would use.
Some people were happy that the players chose to play because, in their words, “they shouldn’t punish the fans” for Sterling’s racism. This strikes me as a cop out. It’s not as if NBA fans are an impartial third-party. They have a stake in the outcome of this controversy. Fans should be considering boycotting Clippers’ playoff games the same way the players should.
And I do believe that’s exactly what the players on the Los Angeles Clippers should have done. They should have put out a joint release that said they would not play another playoff game until new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had suspended Sterling, pending a league investigation.
To do that would have put Adam Silver and the NBA in a bind. One can only imagine the PR disaster if the NBA declared yesterday’s game against the Golden State Warriors forfeit because the Clippers refused to play for a man who would have them as employees but not as customers. Silver would have had to capitulate to the players; he would have had no choice.
But what exactly does it mean to suspend an owner? Is that really punishment? It’s not like suspending a player or coach. Yes, a suspended owner can’t bask in the glow of the adulation and admiration he gets when sitting courtside, but he can still watch the game on television and the NBA is, ultimately, a business. What matters is the bottom line and a suspended owner can still cash in the gate receipts and television revenue. The NBA’s response, when it does finally come, has to hurt Mr. Sterling where it counts.
This, however, is where things get dicey, for, when talking about a professional sports franchise, it’s not often clear where the line between league and team lies. Donald Sterling is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The league can choose to fine Sterling, as it has in the past other owners, such as Mark Cuban, but in most of those instances the infraction impinged directly on the proceedings of the league. Cuban was fined for criticizing the referees and a number of other owners were fined for commenting on the collective bargaining process. As repugnant as what Donald Sterling said is, he said it in a private conversation and he doesn’t directly address any matter having to do with the league.
There is precedent for forcing a team owner out of a league. Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, was banned from baseball in 1996 for making racist remarks, but, even if that were to happen here, Donald Sterling would still walk away a very rich man. The Clippers are a franchise with a bright future. Its stars are all relatively young and locked into multi-year deals. The league could try and keep the selling price down by voting not to approve any deal that would make Sterling an even richer man than he already is (see the recent instance of the Sacramento Kings, when the league blocked the sale of the team to a group from Seatlle, who actually bid $100 million above what the Kings were ultimately sold for), but I can only imagine that Sterling would bring the league to court in such a scenario.
There doesn’t appear to be any good recourse here. I feel for the players, who now have to play the rest of the playoffs with the mother of all locker room distractions. (And yesterday’s lackluster performance would seem to bear out the true weight of the past few days.) What I do know is that the longer Adam Silver takes to respond to these events, the less sure will be his tenure as Commissioner.
In the meantime, as we wait for the league’s reaction, and continue to watch the NBA Playoffs unfold, and as we continue to (rightly) condemn Donald Sterling, we should also consider what it means for a predominantly white audience to watch a predominantly black league. Though it’s possible to turn a blind eye to the racial issues that hover just beneath the league’s surface, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
When Kevin Love tweets that he received the “White Guy” award from the NBA’s General Managers in their annual survey, which includes a question about who makes the most of his limited natural ability, he’s touching upon a racial narrative that has defined basketball at least since Texas Western’s all-black starting five defeated Kentucky’s all-white team for 1966’s NCAA Championship.
When the only players Creighton’s Doug McDermott gets compared to ahead of this year’s NBA draft are other white players, it reinforces that narrative. White players have always been described using words like smart, tough, overachieving, and black players with words like athletic. If these aren’t coded descriptions, I don’t know what are.
And when Adam Silver’s predecessor as NBA Commissioner, David Stern, imposed a dress code on the league for injured players on the bench, as well as for all players traveling on team charters and buses, what he was doing was perceived by many players at the time as imposing a white brand on the league to make the majority white fans more comfortable in the wake of the previous season’s brawl between members of the Indiana Pacers and fans of the Detroit Pistons. (See here and here.)
Just because Donald Sterling’s racism is explicit doesn’t mean he is the only racist in the league. We need to keep that in mind, even as we hope the league holds Sterling accountable for his truly execrable comments.
Photo: AP/Danny Moloshok