Race, Sports & Society: The Sordid Tale of Donald Sterling

Image courtesy of sippakorn/FreeDigital Photos.net.

Image courtesy of sippakorn/FreeDigital Photos.net.

By now, almost everyone in the United States has probably heard about Donald Sterling, the 80-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise, whose recorded, racist diatribe was released by the celebrity gossip website TMZ over the weekend. Sterling was recorded by V. Stiviano, who was apparently his mistress.

On Tuesday, with advertisers lining up to end their relationship with the Clippers and with the threat of a player boycott of playoff games, the NBA handed down its punishment. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined Sterling $2.5 Million and issued a lifetime ban. He also called on the Board of Governors, comprised of the 30 NBA franchise owners (29 without Sterling), to meet and decide whether Sterling should be forced to the sell the franchise, which they can do with a 75% vote.

It’s a sordid story of race, sex, sports, and money. Perhaps the only thing missing is the violence. From the beginning, I was troubled by the discussions surrounding this issue because they often didn’t acknowledge that it was much deeper than one elderly man’s dislike of black people. However, as the scandal lingered on, writers delved more deeply into the story. Here’s my take on the subject.

  1. Donald Sterling’s racism was perhaps the worst kept secret in basketball. So, it’s interesting that so many were shocked, disappointed or hurt because of the statements he made on tape. Yet, one only has to scratch the surface to find numerous witnesses to Sterling’s bad behavior. He singled-out NBA hall-of-famer Magic Johnson, stating that he didn’t want his girlfriend to bring African Americans to Clippers games or appear in pictures with them on “the Instagram.”  But that is unsurprising since Sterling did not want black people in his rental properties either. He compared black people to dogs and spoke as if he were a 21st century slave master, providing houses and cars to his servants out of his benevolence, rather than employer paying people for their labor. I am thrilled that the players used their power to make a stand, but I wished there had been an outcry for the African-Americans and Latinos who lived in Sterling buildings (or were unable to obtain housing) when the Department of Justice housing discrimination suit was filed against him.
  2. The Los Angeles NAACP needs to check itself. In the interest of full disclosure, the national organization been getting the “side-eye” from me for a few years now–ever since since the Shirley Sherrod debacle in 2010. I respect the “historical’ organization, but something seems off with the organization in it’s current state. The Los Angeles NAACP has accepted donations from Donald Sterling for more than a decade. Although it has now been rescinded, they planned to honor him with his 2nd lifetime achievement award at an event in May. It seems like, with the housing discrimination charges, the organization should have been outside his buildings protesting rather than giving him awards. Or, can he wash his sins away with donations? There must be some other way to stay solvent than to take money from the perpetrators of racism that the organization is supposed to combat.
  3. There is a myth that race does not matter in sports. I contend that common sense, history, and contemporary events indicate the fallacy of this, but it seems to be a prevalent line of thinking expressed by sports media types who want to portray the culture of sport as a beacon of righteousness on a hill rather than a microcosm of our society. When confronted with racists or racist behavior, it may be comforting to think that we are confronting an anomaly instead of an endemic social ill. These relics will soon be like the dinosaurs–extinct. But reality contradicts this wishful thinking. And what will “they” say when the next Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito, Dan Snyder, or Donald Sterling reveals himself/herself?