I suspect that anyone who keeps an eye on the news, even an occasional eye, knows what happened in the NBA this week. In a recording of a conversation with his girlfriend, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, Donald Sterling, made clearly racist statements that ignited a firestorm in the media. Current and former players immediately called his attitudes unacceptable and demanded his removal as an owner. The Clippers … and other teams as well … engaged in silent protests before their playoff games and sportscasters, particularly the TNT team of Shaquille O’Neil, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley, called for his immediately removal as owner. Doc Rivers, the Clipper’s African-American coach, strongly hinted that he would not return as coach if Sterling remained as owner. There were rumblings of player boycotts of the playoffs. On Tuesday, the new commissioner, Adam Silver, moved decisively, suspending Sterling for life, fining him $2.5M, and moving to have him removed as owner. The sports world celebrated the demise of a bigot and the leadership of Adam Silver in saving the league, Charles Barkley describing it as a Great Day .
I should be rejoicing, right? Except there’s That Smell. Anyone who follows the NBA knows that Donald Sterling has been the most dreadful of owners for over 20 years, guiding his team to years at the bottom of the standings by refusing to pay his stars what the market demands, poor roster decisions and personality conflicts with his coaches. But you don’t have to dig too deeply to find that his bigotry hasn’t been a secret for all those years. He’s been sued for discrimination in his real estate business (settled with no judgment) and sued by his African-American General Manager, Elgin Baylor. You can find a series of quotes attributed to the man over the years here that will make your hair stand on end. Everyone knew he was a bigoted sleazeball, including the NBA commissioner, all the other owners … and Doc Rivers, when he took the job. Where was all this indignation up until now?
The conversation itself was a private conversation between 80 year old Sterling and his 31 year old girlfriend, who is of African-American and Hispanic descent and if you listen to it, here, she was clearly baiting him to say more. What was she thinking, being his girlfriend? She was thinking $$$$$. In other words, it was a set-up. The girlfriend is being sued by Sterling’s wife over roughly 1.5M in gifts given by Sterling over the years. The two things in the tape that got the most attention seem to have been: (1) his request that she not be seen at Clipper games with black men, including Magic Johnson; and (2) his statements excusing his bigotry because, I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? These are indeed despicable attitudes but they pale in comparison to his actions in discriminating against minorities in his rental properties or his other comments over the years. Oprah Winfrey complained that the Sterling displayed a plantation mentality in the 21st century, in 2014. Please, Oprah … this is a billionaire squabbling with millionaires, it has nothing to do with the plantation. He’s a bigot. We get it.
So, let’s review with these facts in mind. The NBA tolerated a known bigot, who happens to own one of the teams with an African-American coach, for over twenty years, then suddenly decided to take action based upon a private conversation with a vengeful girlfriend. Not because the league is an enlightened place with respect to discrimination but because the players threatened to boycott the playoffs. And Doc Rivers, who I’m sure had to hold his nose when he took the job with the Clippers, saw a chance to participate in the demise of his sleazeball boss. I have absolutely no sympathy for Donald Sterling but pardon me if I don’t see it as a Great Day. It’s easy to be enlightened with a financial gun to your head. Before the decision came down, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said that removing Sterling as owner over a private conversation is a slippery slope. He later said he supported the league’s decision 100% but I agree with his first statement. What happened to due process? We may find out if Sterling fights the league’s decision in court. And Mr. Silver? If you want us to believe the league is as enlightened as you’d have me believe, how about taking decisive actions against other owners with known discriminatory views, such as Doug DeVos, whose family owns the Orlando Magic and is outspokenly anti-gay? Or more than a slap on the hand for players who make discriminatory comments toward any group? How about addressing sport personalities like Shaquille O’Neil, who makes fun of other races (here) or ridicules the disabled (here).
USA Today’s Christine Brennan wrote that, The era of leniency and looking the other way in our professional sports world has met its match in new NBA commissioner Adam Silver. This was about sports, she said, but also about so much more. The conversation transcended sports, and so did Silver’s unyielding performance. Hey, I’m glad Sterling’s finally getting his. But there’s still That Smell… and it smells like hypocrisy. I hope I’m wrong.