Donald Sterling: Pariah
Amid the outcries over Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling’s heinous comments about African Americans, something is likely to be overlooked. The response to Sterling in both degree and magnitude was different from that of previous instances of racist ignorance — which shows just how much times have changed when it comes to race.
This time, there was no backtracking, no trimming, no apologies or excuses, no veiled support of the “yes-but” variety. Sterling was slammed with the weight of the world.
He is a pariah. National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver has now even taken the unprecedented step of formalizing Sterling’s non-personhood. He can have nothing whatsoever to do with professional basketball. He is through — an old man with a life sentence.
Those condemning Sterling’s racist remarks have harkened back to Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis, CBS football analyst Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and Cincinnati Reds Chief Executive Officer Marge Schott as Sterling forebears. All three voiced similarly silly sentiments.
In 1987, on the 40th anniversary no less of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, Campanis told a Nightline audience that the reason there weren’t more black managers is that they lacked what he called the “necessities.” He added that there were no great black swimmers either — because blacks lacked “buoyancy.”
Eight months later, Jimmy the Greek told a local reporter that blacks were superior athletes because they had been bred that way during slavery. Schott, in 1992, allegedly referred to two of her black stars with the “n-word,” then added to her credentials by praising Hitler as having been good for Germany at the start of his dictatorship.
No one at the time defended these three — especially Schott, who seemed an equal-opportunity bigot. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made sure she was eased out of her position by her fellow partners in the franchise. Campanis was summarily fired by the Dodgers after years in the organization as both a player and an executive. And Snyder was fired by CBS immediately — though some colleagues argued that Snyder wasn’t a bona fide racist, only something of a fool.
But in none of these cases was the condemnation as loud or as vehement as it has been against Sterling. There is a reason for that. If Sterling’s comments, like those of rancher Cliven Bundy last week, demonstrated that racism is alive and well, it also demonstrated that however much being a covert racist may be acceptable (just look at some of the anti-Obama propaganda) being an overt one is damnable.
This is real progress. Only 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a historical blink, there is a startling consensus now that racism is not publicly acceptable. Sterling is the likely example henceforth.
There is something else that speaks to just how much times have changed even since Schott. I don’t recall Schott’s players threatening to stage a sit-down strike over her remarks, or would-be free agents declaring that they would never sign with the Reds. Players were generally passive – not necessarily because they wanted to be but because they had little clout.
The suggestion of both Schott and now Sterling that their black players were essentially “house negroes” who played at the sufferance of their white masters was almost certainly an expression of fear and resentment at the growing power and rising profile of African Americans.
It is an example of the changing balance of power in sports that athletes are now a force to rival that of the owners. It is also an example of increasing black power. Sterling is certainly less important in the NBA scheme than his star guard Chris Paul, or his star power forward Blake Griffin.
This time around, the Clippers, unlike the Reds, debated refusing to take the court. Doc Rivers, their African American coach, would not commit to returning to the team after the playoffs — presumably as long as Sterling was owner. The Players’ Assn., coincidentally headed by Paul, demanded a vigorous response from Silver before he meted out justice — or else. They were not going to take it.
In a way, the Sterling contretemps fomented the Nat Turner rebellion of the NBA. It showed that America isn’t a plantation any more, even when you have billionaire white owners and millionaire black players. In this, the players stood for the larger culture. Sterling is not only a pariah; he is irredeemable. His sentiments are so out of fashion that no one can defend him.
And that is a very, very good thing.
PHOTO (TOP): Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team owner Donald Sterling attends the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, May 1, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Marge Shott. WIKIMEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (22) celebrates with forward Blake Griffin (32), guard Chris Paul (3), and guard Jamal Crawford (11) after defeating the Dallas Mavericks 109-103 at the American Airlines Center. Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports