It wasn’t created overnight.
The Donald Sterling Problem was allowed to fester for years, the hope being his most embarrassing qualities as an owner would be limited to crap teams, a habitual inability to pay fired coaches and general managers, and other basketball-related shortcomings, or failing that, buried in the seemingly endless discrimination-related depositions of one form or another. Once his team became not only relevant, but among the most important in the NBA, the hope was Sterling wouldn’t be talked about at all.
Still, as ESPN’s J.A. Adande notes, we all knew who the guy was, whether you’re talking about the league office, his fellow owners, players, media, or fans. That Sterling held antiquated, offensive views on blacks and Latinos apparently time-warped straight from the Civil War era wasn’t exactly a secret. It was tolerated because the NBA wasn’t sure how to make the guy go away, because fans routinely learn to compartmentalize (in this case cheering for the team while abhorring the owner), because players understand there are only so many of these jobs or simply pay zero attention, and because media wasn’t sure how long or how consistently to press the issues.*
It took decades to get here, so explain to me why the Donald Sterling Problem must be unwound by Tuesday? And more importantly, why it must be done first by fans and players?
It’s easy to say leaders like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin should lead a walk out or Doc Rivers should refuse to coach. It would certainly qualify as a bold and honorable gesture, but expecting it (and certainly demanding it) is totally unfair. These are guys who have worked their asses off in pursuit of a collective goal having absolutely nothing to do with the guy who signs the checks. Is it fair to expect them to walk off the job? How about the guys who aren’t quite on the same solid ground as the LAC’s All-Stars?
Is it fair to expect long-suffering Clippers fans, many of whom have spent emotional capital on the team not to mention actual money on playoff tickets – for some, a significant investment involving real sacrifice – to stay home over an owner they probably disliked anyway? Should they choose to I’ll respect that decision, but at the same time won’t rag on anyone showing up trying and push the Clippers to a Game 5 win. I certainly won’t criticize players on the floor.
Putting on the uniform or sitting in a seat to watch doesn’t mean approval of Sterling’s comments.
Justice will come to Donald Sterling.** Not fast enough for many in our instant gratification, social media fueled, chest puffy world, but it will come. There will be ample opportunity to judge how people respond to Sterling in the long term, whether it’s the NBA and whatever punishment they hand down, fans choosing to re-up on their season tickets, free agents to sign with the Clippers, or corporations to buy advertising space on Clippers broadcasts or inside Staples Center, or own a luxury suite. The time to judge people for how they respond to Sterling’s audio isn’t now, in the midst of the most important sequence a basketball season presents and so many are committed beyond the ability to withdraw, but when those commitments are to be renewed.
If the NBA doesn’t do anything to discipline Sterling? Unleash your ire. Want to judge businesses who send their money to Sterling for 2014-15? I’ll retweet your boycott information. Question players, no matter the race, who choose to take his dollars this offseason. Give the side eye to buddies who purchase a season ticket package for next year. Punish commitments made after Friday’s release of the audio, not before.
Should the NBA decide they can’t or won’t do anything to discipline Sterling, or produce sanctions so weak as to be functionally meaningless, the conversation could change. But all signs point to the league leveling as large a punishment as possible as quickly as it can, with enough legal authority to make it stick, and Clippers players deserve the opportunity to let it try. In the end, everyone who needs to make a decision about Sterling will get a chance to do it. For fans and players especially, those decisions don’t have to come by Game 5.
*And the issues aren’t limited to the world of basketball. The NAACP, while canceling the a second lifetime achievement honor Sterling was supposed to receive next month, already had given him the first despite all the litigation surrounding his discriminatory rental practices. All hail the power of substantial donations.
**As this goes up, it already is…