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Race and Beyond: Calling Foul Against Racism in the NBA

SOURCE: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Los Angeles Clippers players listen to the national anthem wearing their warmup jerseys inside out to protest alleged racial remarks by team owner Donald Sterling before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, California.

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It’s easy—and justifiable—to join the posse that saddled up to ride Donald Sterling right out of the National Basketball Association.

TMZ Sports, a section of celebrity gossip website TMZ, reported late Friday night that it had obtained damning audio of Sterling, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers. The tape is allegedly of Sterling telling his girlfriend that, among other things, he didn’t want her bringing black people—specifically, former Los Angeles Lakers’ star and current businessman Magic Johnson—to watch his team play.

Blow the whistle, ref! That’s a blatant foul! Get him out of the game!

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did exactly that. After a three-day investigation to determine whether Sterling was the person on the audio, Silver announced that he and the league were satisfied it was. As a result, Silver ordered the Clippers’ owner to be banned for life from the NBA and fined him $2.5 million. Additionally, Silver said he would seek to have Sterling’s ownership stripped from him by a two-thirds vote of the league’s 30 team owners.

“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views,” Silver said to media packed into a New York City hotel ballroom. “They simply have no place in the NBA.”

After the 80-year-old billionaire revealed himself to be the worst kind of person who walks among civilized people, Silver had no alternative. By any reasonable definition, a person who holds the views represented by what was uttered on that tape is a racist and a bigot, as well as sexist; unfortunately for Sterling, Deadspin has released an expanded—and more damning—version. Sterling is also a hypocrite: His mistress, V. Stiviano, is half-black and half-Mexican.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” his voice says in the recording. “Do you have to?”

He goes on to say, “Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

By shooting off his mouth, albeit in what he thought was a private environment, Sterling, who is white and Jewish, made clear that he doesn’t believe black people are his equal. At one point in the recording, he sounds like an antebellum slave owner, saying of the black Clippers players:

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? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

So, yes, Sterling deserves the widespread condemnation coming from across the nation. There was a long line of people who called foul, including the offended Magic Johnson; fellow NBA team owner and former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan; and current Miami Heat player LeBron James, who said there was “no room” in the NBA for Sterling if the allegations against him turned out to be true. The line even included President Barack Obama, who called the comments “ignorant” and expressed his belief that the NBA will appropriately punish Sterling.

Amid all the hyperbolic and angry reactions, however, some practical issues loomed over the entire sad episode. At the top of the list is the simple matter of due process. Sterling has broken no criminal laws. He voiced his backward-looking opinions during what he surely thought was a private conversation, and he had no expectation of enduring the public embarrassment he has. He’s not going to jail over this matter.

So what is the appropriate response to a man with a 19th-century opinion of African Americans? Can—or should—the NBA’s other owners appropriate Sterling’s property because he, in effect, embarrassed them?

The pressure built up for Silver to act swiftly and decisively. In the hours leading up to his news conference, ESPN reported that Clippers players, coaches, and fans were demanding Sterling’s immediate ouster from among the 30 league owners. At that point, as far as the NBA was concerned, Sterling was a dead man walking. The sheer power of public outrage guaranteed he would have to surrender his team. To be honest, I doubted the NBA brass would summon the courage to make it happen so quickly, but dragging it out would have only made matters worse. The NBA risked losing prestige, money, and public affection if it allowed Sterling to remain unscathed.

This brings me to the other prickly issue that Sterling has exposed. Professional basketball is a popular sport worth billions of dollars globally. Black men dominate the player ranks, while the owner class is largely made up of white men. Until last weekend, the optics of this were largely ignored in the stories sports lovers regale among themselves. Only the outliers dared say what is obvious.

New York Times reporter William C. Rhoden was one of them. His 2006 book $40 Million Slaves captured the dilemma of black professional athletes. Are they heroes and role models of American success, or are they overpriced servants, playing games that make rich men even more wealthy? Upon the publication of his book eight years ago, few Americans listened or seemed to care when Rhoden talked about this subject. He spoke mostly to himself or to the few who agreed with him.

But now, the tape of Sterling is forcing overdue examination and a coast-to-coast conversation. Surely, that can’t be good for the NBA’s narrative, which tells the story of black ballplayers living the high life off the largess of white men, “owners,” who boast in closed-door arguments with their mistresses that they pay for their boys’ “food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.”

In short, the league could not afford to have a self-identified racist leading one of its profit centers. Talk about institutional racism: The imagery of a league of white male owners protecting one of their own—indeed, someone who holds brazenly noxious opinions—while retaining the capacity to control African American players’ financial lives would be a marketing nightmare for every NBA team.

In fact, it has already cost the Clippers. A parade of departing advertising sponsors quickly disassociated their businesses from the Clippers, including the Chumash Casino, CarMax, and Virgin America airline, according to ESPN. The website also reported that State Farm, Kia Motors America, and Red Bull condemned the remarks and will suspend their sponsorships and advertising obligations immediately. If the NBA had stuck with Sterling, every one of its teams would have had protest lines longer than the ones for the men’s toilets.

There was no alternative, no way to spin this story. Sterling had to be sacrificed for the good of the league and the rest of the owners’ balance sheets. By paying the maximum price for his transgressions, Donald Sterling became a casualty—a textbook case—of the costs of clinging to Old World racism in 21st century, multicultural America.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of the CAP Leadership Institute. For more information about the Fellows program or to apply, please follow this link. The application deadline is July 18, 2014.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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