NBA drops the hammer on Sterling, but what does it mean?

Donald Sterling's inflammatory comments have put the NBA at a crossroads.
Donald Sterling’s inflammatory comments have put the NBA at a crossroads.

by Paul West

Today, as hoped for and anticipated by many, the NBA announced a heavy punitive response to the offensive comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling in which he extensively chastised his girlfriend for publicly associating with African Americans (she, herself, is part African American and Mexican in descent). This response included a 2.5 million dollar fine and a lifetime ban, and first-year commissioner Adam Silver spoke pointedly against Sterling’s comments. Expressing his “outrage” at Sterling’s commentary, which went on for minutes and included a litany of regressive commentary about minorities, Silver promised to do “everything in my power” to “force a sale” of the franchise. The NBA’s response has been widely appreciated and congratulated, and indeed, it can only be seen as positive that the NBA condemned Sterling’s outdated and offensive worldview. That said, it’s also been pointed out that Sterling’s regressive views on minorities and women have been well known for years. Not only did recently departed commissioner David Stern fail to take a stand against the Archie Bunker-esque worldview of one of his owners, but he infamously helped re-route one of the league’s premier superstars from the Los Angeles Lakers to Donald Sterling’s team. So how should we view the NBA’s reaction?

Sterling left no room for interpretation

Simply put, the NBA had no choice but to come down hard on Donald Sterling. Had Sterling simply uttered a single slur, or profanely described a woman or minority in a fit of anger, it would have been much less of a layup (pun intended) to publicly distance him from the league. But Sterling’s recorded tirade is far from his first such outburst, but rather the latest in a long string of notoriously insensitive outbursts and policies. This particular recording is actually Sterling’s prolonged argument, with a woman of African-American and Mexican descent, about why she should’t bring African Americans to Clippers games. He explains not just that he doesn’t want people ‘throwing it in his face’ that his brown-skinned girlfriend associates with minorities, but he also explains how this perspective is actually for her own good, and moreover explains how she should feel free to love her ethnicity and even “f–k them”–but only in private. Sterling actually broke down his view of things, in a way that left little room for interpretation. This, in turn, left the NBA little room for equivocation in its reaction.

Protecting the brand

What needs to be remembered about Silver’s reaction is that, regardless of how Silver himself might have felt about Sterling’s remarks, it was unequivocally necessary from a business standpoint. As has been pointed out by countless observers, the NBA is still a predominantly African American league and has a heavily African American fan base. Failing to condemn such overtly bigoted comments would have alienated not just a huge portion of the NBA’s fan base, but the clear majority of its players (not just the ones of African American descent, either). Of course, the fact that, as noted above, Sterling’s comments left no room for equivocation, begs a deeper question: what if Sterling’s commentary had been less Bunker-like? Moreover, why was Sterling not taken to task for his long and well known history of insensitivity?

Institutions protect themselves first and foremost

Unfortunately, the NBA isn’t the only institution that will fail to police its own members unless left little other choice. History is ridden with scandals that illustrate this point, from the Penn State scandal to the LAPD’s infamous Rampart division. While many have rightly pointed out the NBA’s previous failure to censure or condemn Sterling’s bigotry, it is neither surprising nor counter to precedent that this is how the league handled the situation. Pointing out this fact is a necessary step, but it’s also important to use its current–if overdue–response as a point of departure toward a better, more sensitive and inclusive future.

This isn’t only important because it’s the NBA

As with many storylines that emerge from professional sports, there are countless parallels with mainstream society in this latest scandal–and countless opportunities to ponder the state of our world, and keep ourselves honest as individuals and a society regarding our progress toward our ideals. That the NBA is a heavily African American league is important, because its players stand to have their livelihoods and futures affected by a man who thinks so ill of them. But it also bears noting that Donald Sterling is involved in the real estate business, where his effect on society can be even more deleterious than as an NBA owner. It also bears noting that, unfortunately, Mr. Sterling is far from alone in his outdated views, and that his views represent a fairly extreme form of views that pervade our society at every level. Ethnic and sexual bigotry not only continue to pervade our society, but even moderates and progressives in our society are products of their impact and occasionally lapse in their direction. The best way to overcome these issues, and eventually eradicate them, is to use these kinds of events as fuel for productive discussion and self analysis as a society. This can only happen when we recognize, and assure, that bigoted worldviews are not just removed from positions of power in the NBA, but in more ethnically mixed leagues like the NFL or MLB and those skewed in a different fashion such as the NHL.

Making an example of Donald Sterling is not a magic bullet

The biggest mistake the NBA, and we as a society, can make is to think that a memorable reaction to this one event will eradicate racism–or even, for that matter, go very far toward preventing it. The fact it, Sterling is expected to context the NBA’s response. It’s being speculated that for reasons alluded to above, as well as legitimate concerns about the slippery-slope effect, other NBA owners will take some issue with the extent of Silver’s response. Either way, this particular episode will not be resolved quickly or cleanly, regardless of how swift and stern the NBA’s reaction. The best possible future will be one in which people of bigoted worldview are much fewer and further between, regardless of where they reside on the socioeconomic–or demographic–spectrum. The best possible outcome from the Donald Sterling scandal will be one that takes us in the direction of that world, instead of just making a pariah out of one elderly bigot and putting our collective heads back in the sand.



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