by Paul West
In recent weeks, basketball fans have been treated to what might be the best single round in NBA playoff history. Close games, overtimes and dramatic finishes abounded; Memphis and Oklahoma City had an NBA record four overtime games in its series, and five of the eight opening series went all the way to the seventh and deciding game. The first Saturday in May was historic, as the NBA had its first Game Seven triple-header. One of the matchups that didn’t go seven games was perhaps the round’s most exciting, as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers battled game after game and went to overtime in three games out of six. The series ended on Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beating three, on a catch-and-shoot inbound with less than a second remaining, joining Michael Jordan’s famous jumper over Craig Ehlo as one of only a handful of series-ending buzzer-beaters in the league’s history.
Unfortunately, an incredible playoff round was overshadowed by the now-infamous commentary by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling’s recorded rant, in which he profanely requested that his brown-skinned girlfriend refrain from publicly associating with other brown-skinned people, earned him a lifetime ban from the NBA and raised the ire of people of many backgrounds. Word spread of possible boycotts by fans and players alike, and sponsors withdrew. Rookie NBA commissioner Adam Silver responded quickly and sternly, adding a 2.5 million dollar fine to Sterling’s lifetime ban, and spoke pointedly about how Sterling’s views “have no place in the NBA.” Chiming in, many observers pointed out that Sterling’s views are particularly offensive in a league that’s heavily African American. This not only misses the point, but it’s part of the problem. The truth is, Donald Sterling’s views on ‘race’ are not just troubling in a professional basketball league. They’re troubling, inappropriate and downright dangerous in any walk of life.
Los Angeles Times reporter Sandy Banks recently landed in hot water for writing, “let the real estate magnate make his millions and buy a hockey team.” She has since apologized for her comments, but her faux pas mirrored the sentiments of many–and unwittingly alluded to two under-addressed realities. First, it bears noting that Sterling did, in fact, make much of his fortune in real estate. While accumulating said fortune, he conducted himself in a notoriously prejudiced manner, which surely had a poisonous ripple effect. A bigoted NBA owner can affect the lives of many people, with hiring and payment policies and treatment of fans, players and staff. But not only can a bigoted real estate mogul affect the lives of many people, they can rearrange the social and demographic landscape of entire communities. They can displace countless people and contribute to the continuing problem of American social and residential segregation. Unfortunately, Donald Sterling is both a bigoted NBA team owner and a bigoted real estate mogul—and it bears noting that his views were widely understood long before this particularly soap-operatic scandal, but I digress. Regarding the hypothetical matter of Sterling buying a hockey team, it’s a dangerous assertion that his beliefs would be appropriate in the NHL. The NHL is more ethnically and demographically diverse than it’s ever been, but it’s still lagging in diversity in part because of the persistent and erroneous perception that ice hockey is for ‘white’ people. Banks’ comments were thematically similar to those of people who emphasized the NBA’s ethnic makeup, implying that his comments were somehow more wrong because he owns a basketball team. Sterling’s comments were simplistic, separatist and outdated, and the extent to which his views would be accepted in a league of any demographic makeup is reflective of how much social progress has stalled.
As luck would have it, the NHL playoffs were recently overshadowed by an event that illustrates just how inappropriate Sterling’s comments would be if he did own a hockey team. After scoring a game-winning overtime goal against the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens’ star P.K. Subban was the topic of thousands of racist tweets from the Boston fan base. Many of these tweets opined that Subban didn’t belong in the NHL in the first place, and ‘whitesonly’ was even used as a hashtag. This is the logical conclusion of the separatist requests made in Sterling’s infamous rant, and the episode perfectly illustrates how Sterling’s worldview is dangerous in the NHL. The subsequent outcry, which came from far and wide and included members of the Bruins fan base, is a glimmer of hope illustrating that Sterling’s worldview is also increasingly unwelcome in the NHL.
Donald Sterling’s bigotry represents a myriad of ills that continue to poison human society. His bigotry is particularly dangerous because of how many lives his money and connections have allowed him to affect, but it would be no less inappropriate or distressing if he were less powerful. If Donald Sterling owned a small business, his bigotry would be no less inappropriate. It would just be less likely to make the news.