*The National Basketball Association (aka the NBA) has been turned topsy-turvy over a leaked taped conversation between 80 year old Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald (Tokowitz) Sterling, and his 31 year old concubine, Vanessa Stiviano, that gave a shocking insight to the depth of Sterling’s racial views—specifically towards African Americans. The audio tape where you hear Sterling defame the humanity and dignity of black people. He denied the voice was his. It’s been since confirmed that it was. The league has determined that it is. He’s been banned from the NBA for life. But he still owns the club, and the Clippers still play for him.
News of Sterling’s bigotry is nothing new. We’ve got ten years of this racial stuff about Donald Sterling’s outward bigotry. He’s only settled the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in recent history, and been sued hundreds of times (allegedly) over his discriminatory behavior, the most notable of which was by NBA Legend and Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor. Baylor told us five years ago, publicly, that Sterling was a racist with a “plantation” mentality. We know now.
Elgin Baylor was right.
And he should know. Baylor legitimized the Clippers in the L.A. market on his Lakers legend identity for 22 years and his reward was a surpassed salary ($350,000) that was a pittance of the league’s standard salaries for General Managers and consistent sabotage in refusing to build the team into a winner. Year after year, the Clippers were perennial losers and the butt of league jokes. They got more top five draft choices in the last 20 years than any other team, yet Sterling refused to re-sign them, thus keeping his payroll and his profit line high—even though he had half filled arenas most of that time. In many of those years, the Clippers, one of the least successful teams in terms of winning percentage, were the most profitable team in the league—because of the NBA’s huge television package is divided equally among 30 teams. But Baylor could never really build a team with the financial constraints placed on him by a cheap owner.
When Sterling had finally used Baylor up, he put Baylor out to pasture in a way most unceremoniously. In fact, it was shameful. And Baylor filed a lawsuit in 2009 alleging age and race discrimination. Baylor’s claim were dismissed because he lost the lawsuit, and because Sterling tried to buy up the black community. To be clear, most rejected him. But he had a few takers, one of which was the Los Angeles NAACP, who gave him a lifetime achievement award, which is not new for the L.A. branch. They been selling award since 1987.
I’m sensitive to this, because as a past President, my falling out with the L.A. NAACP all began with my protest of the branch selling Frank Sinatra the “life achievement” award. Those who came after me the next year, when I became President, were the ones in the branch that made the decision to sell the award. It led to my ouster and subsequent prosecution, which I detail in my first book. In fact, I named my first book after the Frank Sinatra episode. I called it,
Souls For Sale: The Diary of an Ex-Colored Man.
But Sterling took it a step further. He ran half or full page newspaper ads touting his “black friends” (his charity donations to the black community, among others) to deflect the criticisms that Baylor and hundreds of black and Latino rental applicants were saying at the time.
So, between manipulating the courts and manipulating the public, Donald Sterling was able to get out of the racism jacket. But the brand was still on his forehead.
And the world moved on. Now the Clippers are winners. Not champions yet, but winners.
But the doubt around Sterling has been removed. A diatribe that included everything from questioning her association with blacks—to flat out admonishing her not to bring blacks to his games. Including Magic Johnson. Magic!!?? REALLY?? Mind you, Staviano, is half black (and half Latino). It was as racist as anything we’ve heard, recently at least. The extended play version is even worse.
The tape was only shocking to people who didn’t know, and to his players and coach—all of whom (except two) are black. Which brings us to the Clippers themselves, who now realize that they work for an owner that devalues them as human beings. How do you handle this?
Yes, the players were unfairly thrust into this heinous spotlight, but this was a situation that was now bigger than the sport itself. What is a game when your dignity is assaulted? What does sports mean in the context of a larger social stigmatization? What statement can be made to reflect the largeness of this level of betrayal? What were (are) the obligations here of the players, to themselves—as men, to the Clippers and their fans, to their goals in pursuit of an elusive NBA Championship. These were the questions the Clippers’ players face on Sunday.
Race has been the sword that has cut at the core of America from its inception.
It was the cause of the Civil War. It was the fuel of the 20th Century social change movements. Yet, sports and music, which has had its own challenges in overcoming race, have managed to bridge the nation over the last half century. To exact a slaveowner/slave mentality in the 21st Century is regressive and draconian. Donald Sterling is a relic of the past and, trust me, he is not the only one in our society today. But when our dignity is assaulted, it cannot be negotiated away and soft-soaped. Dignity is not negotiable.
There are moments in our nation’s history where a sacrifice is necessary to prove a greater principal. There are times that events in history define the times and the men of those times. This was one of those defining moments. This was an Ali refusal to step forward moment. This was a Tommie Smith/John Carlos moment. It was bigger than the sport itself, and a global news story. All eyes were on the Clipper players. What would they do? Would they sit out the game? We all hoped that we would be witness to one of those defining moments in American history.
We did not witness such a moment.
The players simply dropped their warm-ups, reversed their warm-up shirts, then played half-heartedly and got badly beat by the Golden State Warriors. It was expected.
Clearly, the players didn’t want to play. So why did they?
I believe forty years from now, each of these will regret they didn’t sit out one game in protest. Yes, the league came through with a lifetime ban of Donald Sterling, fined him $2.5 million dollars, and will try to force a vote to take his franchise. But it was anti-climatic to the real defining moment. It could take years rid the league of Sterling, and he still will get paid.
Fans attending games, Sterling will still be paid. Support for the players is great, but how do you express support for Donald Sterling and not support Sterling financially?
You can’t. It’s impossible to do. Sterling will get paid from television revenue, tickets, merchandise and concessions. From the comfort of his bigoted mancave…
This episode is far from over. Elgin Baylor did the right thing. The NBA did the right thing. But I’m not sure the Clipper players are resting easy with their own respective consciences. You can tell Doc Rivers is already having regrets. They could’ve sat out, and the league and players would’ve supported them. When NBA Commish, Adam Silver said this will be resolved by Tuesday, they should have said, “Then we’ll play Tuesday, after we hear what you decide.” And it would still be two games to one, Clippers. Instead it’s two-two and the cloud is still there. And as of right now, Sterling still owns the team. Where’s the inspiration here?
This could’ve been one of those moments in time that people would have talked about 50 years from now. Like we talk about Ali’s stand. Like we talk about Smith’s and Carlos’ stance. They were bigger than any benefit to themselves. Society grew from it and now those figures are beloved beyond their sports. They’re cultural icons. I think the Clippers missed that chance.
Instead, the Clipper warm-up toss is now just another page in a new chapter of America’s oldest book, Racism In America. A book we’re all tired of reading.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.
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