The Sterling Distraction
Blackacre is conflicted about the Donald Sterling affair. If you may recall, Mr. Sterling is the current, may be former owner of the NBA professional basketball team, the L.A. Clippers. During what he assumed was a private conversation between he and his erstwhile girlfriend, Mr. Sterling uttered profoundly racist comments about African-Americans.
The conversation was recorded and leaked to the press after which all hell ensued. Corporate sponsors like Virgin America, Sprint, Red Bull, Car Max and others ended or suspended their relationship with the team. The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, imposed upon Mr. Sterling the equivalent of the NBA death penalty, i.e., a 2.5 million dollar fine and a lifetime ban from the league. He further pledged the forced sale of the team.
The collateral damage extends far beyond Mr. Sterling and his girlfriend. His estranged wife has suffered unwelcome attention as has the Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP, which honored Mr. Sterling with a lifetime achievement award in 2009 and was slated to do so again shortly before the scandal broke. The President of the organization has recently submitted his resignation over affair.
Many have heralded the public scorn and subsequent sanctions as a fit and proper reaction to comments that are admittedly indefensible. Without further beating a dead horse, consider for example the following passage:
Girlfriend: “Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?”
Mr. Sterling: “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”
It goes without saying that Mr. Sterling does not “support” his players and does not “give” them food, clothes, cars, houses or anything else. Pursuant to the capitalistic system which he presumably supports and negotiated contracts there under, the players earn a salary by which they provide for their own wants and needs.
In addition neither he nor any other owner “makes the game”. The game is played and therefore “made” by the professional basketball players who make up the league. It is doubtful that any one would pay to see Mr. Sterling in shorts, much less play basketball. It is even more doubtful that the owners including the 81-year-old Mr. Sterling have the skills or athleticism necessary to shoot, dribble, dunk, rebound or even run the court.
Initially, Blackacre called out Mr. Sterling for his racist and hypocrisy comments. We did not spare the rod in condemning said comments and called for significant sanctions, including the separation of Mr. Sterling from his team. However, we are having second thoughts about our original position. Now that the initial shock has subsided, it may be time to pump the brakes on this entire matter.
This does not mean that we support or excuse the Sterling rant. If this is the way he truly feels about a league dominated by black players, then perhaps he should not own a team. And the sanctions may be supported by karma. The abuse of others is one thing the Divine does not tolerate. Sooner or later every bully is brought low. Every tyrant is made to pay. Donald Sterling is no exception to the rule.
Nevertheless, on further reflection racial hatred may not be the motivating factor here. These may be the comments of an old man fearful of losing his mate and the respect of his peers.
There is also the issue of proportionality, i.e., whether the sentence of a 2.5 million dollar fine, the forced sale of his team and a lifetime ban from the NBA is proportionate to the offense of verbalizing racist opinions during a private conversation. Absent the unilateral exposure of this conversation, Mr. Sterling would not only have maintained his lofty and profitable position as a NBA team owner but would have received his second lifetime achievement award from an organization that represents the very people he dismisses. The lesson here may be that in a world of ever-increasing surveillance, no conversation or occurrence, whether between quarreling lovers, or secret moments in an empty elevator, is private.
Moreover, there is no evidence that Mr. Sterling acted in a racist manner relative to his ownership of the Clippers. We are aware of his history with housing discrimination. We are also conscious of the Elgin Baylor lawsuit which alleged both race and age discrimination. However, Mr. Sterling prevailed in this matter and as much as we dislike racism, the question remains. Should one be punished merely because of what one feels, thinks, or believes, even if said feelings, thoughts and beliefs are repugnant?
More importantly, the Sterling matter is a sideshow, not the main attraction. It serves only to distract us from more material concerns. Left unchecked, income inequality will worsen and the world will grow warmer and drier; our weather more angry regardless what happens to Donald Sterling.
Plus, as deserved as the sanctions might be, they merely raise the price of exposure. They do nothing to resolve our lingering racial divide and will not lessen the racial hatred of an aging rocker, the cultural ignorance of a Nevada rancher or the ethnic and masculine insecurity of an old man. Those who hate, those who fear will continue to do so regardless of what happens to Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Brothas will continue to sag and to disrespect their women who in turn will disrespect them. Bullets will fly, the sickening pop, pop, pop of random gunfire will remain and inner city lives will be lost whether Mr. Sterling is banned form the NBA or not.
The browning of America will persist irrespective of what happens to this or any other team owner. So to will fear of this change as well as the attempt to forestall the inevitable by erecting barriers designed to prevent certain people from voting.
Our education system still under performs and we continue to nourish the most racist institution in America, i.e., the criminal justice system by waging the War on Drugs, a contest we lost long ago, a conflict that saturates our prisons with minorities, where guards are paid more than teachers and which is funded at multiple times the levels of our public schools.
If anything the Sterling affair and our reaction to it merely solidifies previously held positions. It convinces one side that it has been right all this time and the other side that it has and continues to be wronged all the time.
Yes, Donald Sterling has been punished and arguably, the good guys won. But the sanctions are no stake to the heart of racism. If such is the goal, Blackacre would suggest we move beyond the individual. For our various “isms” whether racial or otherwise are more than personal failings. They are systemic, structural, institutional problems created and fostered by injurious legislation and policies that have more to do with money and power than with race.
Until and unless we strengthen our institutions and alter discriminatory policies, nothing will change. And for this we need real leadership of the sort that has yet to reveal itself in the Donald Sterling affair.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO, Blackacre Policy Forum