By now, everybody reading this is likely up to speed with the controversy involving Donald Sterling, his mistress and leaked audio of the Clippers’ owner expressing horribly racist thoughts, so I’ll forgo a rehash. (For those in need of a timeline chronicling Sterling’s controversial history, ESPN The Magazine has you covered.) Sterling spewing paranoid bigotry may be little more than expectations met, but it nonetheless stirs a range of thoughts for me.
His comments are embarrassing as a Jew who can’t wrap his head around a fellow member of a long-discriminated group so determined to pay that discrimination forward. They’re depressing as the father of a racially mixed child who couldn’t help but imagine his daughter involved with a man who twists and perverts her sense of self. They’re disturbing because beyond the racism displayed, Sterling comes across as a genuinely sick man.
But they’re also a reminder that as a member of the media, the Los Angeles media no less, I haven’t done anything of consequence to address this long-festering problem with Sterling. That’s not to say I’ve ignored Sterling’s well-established history. I’ve certainly noted his sad and racist history on radio, podcasts or in articles. But it would be disingenuous to claim I’ve treated the matter with sincere urgency, despite knowing for eons Sterling’s mindset makes him a wildly inappropriate owner of an NBA team.
I can also find company with most other members of the media, and damn near everyone connected to the NBA in any capacity.
Again, I’m not saying the media has been silent about Sterling’s reputation, because that’s not true. And there has always been talk about the embarrassment he’s caused fellow owners. But Sterling’s time in the NBA has produced more punchlines about cheapness and losses than consistently outward ire over character. There’s been more focus on his pattern of discriminating against players commanding high salaries than nameless, faceless minorities. Generally speaking, Sterling has been in the crosshairs because of incompetence rather than intolerance. It’s telling that as the team has grown more successful over the last few years, criticism of Sterling, whose character remains the same with 50 wins or 30 wins, has died down considerably.
The media hasn’t done its part to hold him accountable. Sponsors haven’t held him accountable. The public, to whatever degree they’ve paid attention, hasn’t held him accountable.
And David Stern, along with 29 other owners, the people most empowered to address the situation, truly haven’t held him accountable.
(As for player culpability, there are now people framing Clippers past and especially present as a guilty party who signed on knowing Sterling’s history, and therefore made a monetary deal with the devil. Maybe that’s true, but it’s also because the league put them in the position of having to make an unfair choice. Most people have worked at some point in their life for a boss with character issues of some kind, and reacted by remaining an employee. I know I have. And while we rarely think of millionaire athletes as employees, that is in fact what they are. As such, I put the least amount of blood on their hands. That’s also why I’m generally uncomfortable with pressure towards Clipper players to boycott a game. While their refusal to take the court would be an undeniably powerful statement, capitalizing on their profile feels too convenient, and indicative of the buck passing that’s allowed this situation to linger. The league needs to take the lead, not the players.)
After decades upon decades of disgrace, there is now a movement to remove Sterling from the NBA. Sponsors have begun pulling out, and this type of economic pressure may ultimately provide the leverage needed to make this feasible. (Money always talks. Just ask the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP.) But it’s important to remember that Sterling’s eventual dismissal may have only happened because a mistress decided to burn him with a vengeful and possibly illegal recording. Had Sterling remained faithful to his wife, or just avoided taking the bait, it would be business (and I emphasize the word “business”) as usual.
It’s a reality worth considering as we watch this mess play out.