Donald Sterling and Race in the NBA

Ronald Martinez

What does the latest Donald Sterling controversy tell us about how attitudes on race play out in our favorite league?

By now everyone reading this knows that Donald Sterling was caught, once again, being racist. In this instance, a recording of a conversation between Sterling and his girlfriend has been published by TMZ, in which Sterling makes any number of derogatory remarks about black people, prompted by his girlfriend--gasp--associating with black people.

This is not the first example of Sterling's grotesque attitudes, nor is it anywhere near the most harmful. In 2009, Sterling settled a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice over housing discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics. Among other things, he was quoted as saying that Hispanics "smoke, drink, and just hang around the building," while African-Americans "...smell and attract vermin."

Later, he was sued by his (black) former general manager Elgin Baylor for race and age discrimination. Baylor quoted Sterling as saying he wanted to "fill his team with poor black boys from the south and a white head coach."

For years, the NBA (and all of us) has looked the other way in the face of Sterling's blatant racism. The league in particular has a lot to answer for; their position at the time of the housing lawsuit was that litigation involving an owner's other business interests was not within its scope.

Now, however, there is a voice, and it's Sterling's voice, saying reprehensible things that ESPN is running.  And so something will be done. And it should.

Ideally, Sterling would  be forced to sell the team. The result would be enormous profit, as he bought Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, and would likely clear in the neighborhood of $750M now.  That can't be helped. Horrible people make huge amounts of money all the time; it would benefit the league if he was not in it.

However, I don't think the NBA has the right to force a sale. They can pressure him, but I don't think legally there is any recourse for them to demand his ouster.  It is within the NBA's purview to suspend him.  He could be forced to stay away from the team and its offices, and at least in theory have nothing to do with the operations of the franchise. He would, however, still be collecting profits as the owner, and even more chafing, Clippers players would be generating those profits for a blatant racist. A terrible position for them.

Ultimately, it is up to the league, meaning the Commissioner and other owners, to do something about this blight in its midst.  We have already heard, via twitter and other media, from players who are disgusted by this latest embarrassment, but it is not their responsibility to fix it. I will applaud players for speaking out, or taking action in any way they deem appropriate, but this is on Adam Silver.  I don't envy him.

I invite us at this point to widen this discussion to the more vague but interesting questions surrounding how race plays out in the NBA.  Sterling is a bigot, but is he merely one of the more aggressive symptoms of the systemic racial imbalances that exist in the league (and in American life)?  I'll start with this question: why has it taken this incident, as opposed to previous incidents, to so incite the NBA world that something will finally be done about Donald Sterling? As Key Dae tweeted earlier on the Canis feed, it isn't as if we didn't know what he was already.

I don't know the answer to that question, but consider: The NBA is a business whose product in entertainment. That entertainment is created by men with extraordinary talent, the large majority of whom are black. Meanwhile, ownership is almost entirely white, the league office is headed by white men, the fan base is mostly white (at least in the U.S.), and it is covered and written about by a media corps that also is mostly white.

The optics of this are...worrisome. Nobody is singing folk songs about the downtrodden NBA players, not with the salaries they command. But it is worth thinking about the image this creates. For a long time when I was a kid, the NBA was frowned upon as a league of drug addled, "uppity" blacks.  That image has largely gone away, but it is worth thinking about this: those groups I mentioned above-the owners, the fans, the media, mostly white, sit in judgment, in one way or another, of a group of people who are mostly black.

And it isn't just optics. Arguably, Donald Sterling's continued presence in the league is a result of that situation. There are other examples. Last summer, Dwight Howard was a free agent. In truth, he handled it professionally and quietly. He received offers, met with a couple of teams, said nothing publicly, and agreed in fairly short order to sign with the Rockets. That didn't stop us, though. The narrative of Dwight Howard was (and is) that he is a childish attention seeker, and so it was reported. The writers couldn't wait until the interminable Howard Saga ended. So many twitter jokes about Howard's supposed behavior.  As I've written before, it made me cringe.

The dress code. The argument was that it is well within an employer's rights to demand certain standards of dress in the workplace. And that is true, as far as it goes.  However, when the employers are almost entirely white, and the employees are mostly black, and the "objectionable" clothing is expressive of certain elements of black culture, it signifies more.

My point is this: we should keep in mind that we are fans of a product in which largely white people make profits (owners), salaries (media), and derive entertainment (fans) from the public efforts of (well-compensated) black men. That balance isn't changing anytime soon, and isn't a reason not to participate. It is worthwhile, however, to keep it in mind. We owe it to ourselves and others in all aspects of our lives to judge people on their merits, as individuals. When we are part of a group (NBA fans, media), that sits in judgment over a racially imbalanced set of public figures, it is essential that we pay attention to the ways we think and the things we say and write within the context of race.

We all love the NBA. We saw some of why today--Vince freaking Carter.  But like so many aspects of American life, it is not immune to either racism or insensitivity. Donald Sterling is an embarrassment to the league, and with luck he will be gone in short order. But the attitudes, public and private, conscious and subconscious, remain. As we watch the games, and as we see issues surrounding the league develop, from CBA negotiations to front office hires to ownership transfers, we should be aware that issues of race permeate how we see, think, and write about them.

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