This weekend, casual sports fans and those who aren’t fans at all received the rather old news that LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a racist. A recording of an argument that apparently occurred between Sterling and his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, who is Mexican and Black, popped up on the TMZ website on Saturday. The quarrel is about a picture Stiviano took with NBA legend Magic Johnson and posted to her Instagram page. Sterling took offense to Stiviano putting up pictures of herself in public with black people for all with an internet connection to see. What is more, Sterling informed her that he didn’t want her bringing black people to Clippers’ games. The conversation is essentially a 9-minute example of what goes on inside the mind of a racist.
Of course, for those of us who spend way too much time paying attention to sports, the comments that allegedly belong to Sterling are hardly surprising. In fact, what Sterling reportedly said to his fiancee are actually some of the nicest things he has said about black people. ESPN’s J.A. Adande provided a nice run-down in his article about the incident:
It fits right in with a man who paid a record $2.75 million to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit that included accusations that Sterling and his wife made statements “indicating that African-Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants and that they preferred Korean tenants.”
It fits right in with a man who was unsuccessfully sued for wrongful termination by former general manager Elgin Baylor, who claimed, among other things, that Sterling once said, “I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players,” and that Sterling would bring women into the locker room to gaze at his players’ “beautiful black bodies.”
It fits in with a man whose idea of celebrating Black History Month, which is in February, was inviting 1,000 underprivileged children to a Clippers game. In March.
Though they did silently protest by wearing black socks and wrist bands, and taking off their team-issued gear and rocking red shirts sans Clippers logo during warm-ups, none of the Clippers players sat out yesterday’s game playoff game against the Golden State Warriors. Doc Rivers still coached. The Warriors didn’t refuse to play the Clippers. Magic Johnson has vowed never to attend a Clippers game as long as Sterling is the owner, though he did state that the onus was not on the players to take some sort of stand. Kobe said he couldn’t play for an owner like Sterling. LeBron said there’s no room for men like Sterling in the NBA.
Michael Jordan had no comment. Although Baron Davis applauded the team for “taking the high road” by continuing to play, he later said that Sterling called him a bastard when he played for the team. These responses made me wonder: How is Kobe, how is any player so sure he doesn’t play for an owner like Sterling? Why is continuing to do your job despite such utter disrespect the high road? And, why is it not incumbent upon the players (along with owners and fans) to do or say something? In fact, former coach and commentator Jeff Van Gundy, who was the color analyst for yesterday’s game, is one of few voices actually questioning the suggestion that players stand pat and remain neutral:
“The only action that would be wrong is inaction or neutrality. From what the Clippers players did, I’d also like to see them make a statement before the game to the crowd about how racism has no place in this basketball arena,” said Van Gundy. “Or just sit on the bench silently protesting for 15 minutes. Or even wait until Commissioner Adam Silver imposes whatever discipline is coming. Any of those to me would have been a great statement.”
After the game began, Breen asked Van Gundy about how he thought the Sterling controversy would affect the team’s championship pursuit.
“Mike, who cares?” said Van Gundy. “There are some things that are bigger than pursuing a championship. Pursuing a championship is worthwhile. Making a stand on something that impacts society is even more important.”
Van Gundy is right. Apparently, some teams have instructed players not to say anything and the players are obliging. This is, to put it mildly, incredibly disappointing; but, like Sterling’s comments, expected. As I’ve said before, William Rhoden argued that today’s athlete is cut off from his community and taught to be explicitly apolitical. And this is just the latest evidence in favor of that claim. One cannot successfully sell cars or sneakers or car insurance if one is decidedly political. Brands have no ideological affiliation, I guess. But as we cast aspersions at the players, perhaps we should also look at ourselves.
Just as sports is a microcosm for our society, athletes are, I suppose, physically superior versions of us. Yes, us. Each day we see and endure injustice wielded by those who are moneyed and seemingly powerful, and silently succumb to it, never once thinking that we are the ones who could control the game and dismantle it should we choose. We vote. We buy things. We settle for surface-level justice. Just as players suit up each game day willfully ignoring that they participate in the most glaring modern example of the plantation economy, we, too, are often complicit in our own oppression, and comfort ourselves by refusing to buy Chick-fil-A without thinking about the fact that the fight for marriage equality is being partly funded by producers of drones, for example. Some of us NBA fans will demand that Sterling be banned, that he be forced to sell, lulling ourselves into believing that public-shaming is somehow worse than a potential half-billion dollar profit. But those acts, just like black wrist bands, do not really do much to dismantle the white supremacist paradigm that will continue to operate within and beyond the NBA whether or not Donald Sterling sits courtside at Clippers games.
It’s not too late, though. Due process gives NBA players and coaches a wonderful opportunity to change the game, to become a shining example of something more than the beauty of sport; to say that there is something more important than shoe deals and hoisting a trophy. But if what happened this past weekend is any indication, we should probably not expect much more from the players. It seems that, in situations like this at least, they are more like us than we care to imagine. The NBA, sport at large needs, at the very least, more Richard Shermans. Until then, I suppose we have to look for other examples–or become the example.
Good thing LA is a Lakers’ town, I guess.