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Donald Sterling
May 2, 2014
by Spencer Santilli
The True Man in Sports

Just when I begin to think that the endless debate over racism in America would abate, a situation arose that reminded me that the issue is still very much alive.  In recent weeks America was plagued by yet another serious racist diatribe.  Instead of moving forward after the media-induced fervor of the Trayvon Martin case finally subsided, we again find ourselves in the grips of another scandal.  It should be no surprise to anyone that at the epicenter of this racially charged discourse was an aging, wealthy, white male. With the comments of soon to be ex-LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, striking at the heart of socially conscious America, I can't help but think the situation is best explained by the old phrase of, "two steps forward, one step back."  We finally move past one scandal only to have another rear up and bite us in the ass.  Instead, this time, Sterling has only managed to send the argument of racism being dead in America tumbling back into oblivion.  That being said, although the swift and deliberate punishment of Sterling by the NBA goes to show that racism carries swift and severe penalties, the larger scope of racial inequality remains unaddressed in society.

We’re all cognizant of the fact that not much in our lives can remain private, even if we want it to.  Recently, audio recordings surfaced of a voice identified as Sterling’s that included bigotry-laced rants.  The tirade was not limited to one specific race and was purportedly leaked by the woman on the tape V. Stiviano, who is Sterling's most recent girlfriend.  The majority of Sterling's comments circled around Stiviano's association with African-Americans at Clippers games and on social media.  Sterling, the real-life NAACP lifetime achievement award winner that he is, didn't take kindly to his mixed-race girlfriend openly associating with African-Americans and other minorities.  (The NAACP has decided to withhold a second award, slated to be handed out in May)   On April 29th, after his own thorough and independent investigation, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver dropped the hammer with the firm decision to ban Sterling, for life, from all association with the league.  In addition to levying the heftiest fine allowed in the NBA constitution, $2.5 million, Silver noted that he will pressure the NBA board into forcing Sterling's sale of the franchise.  A vote among all other franchise owners will take place, where 75% of the voters need to vote yes in order to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.   Quite frankly, if Silver had decided on anything less than this it would have been an embarrassment to the league and the advancement of racial relations everywhere.

Donald Sterling was born in 1934 in Chicago, and lived through some of the most tumultuous times in American history.  World War II, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement just to name a few.  Sterling became a highly successful lawyer and business magnate — eventually buying the former San Diego Clippers under the guidance of the late NBA owner (LA Lakers), Dr. Jerry Buss, in 1981 for $12.5 million.  Now the LA Clippers, who play in one of the more notable venues in all of sports, the Staples Center, are worth well over half a billion dollars and are quickly emerging as an elite NBA franchise.  In his tenure as owner, Sterling has not been immune to scandals and was repeatedly named, “The Worst Owner in Sports.” This was not just because of his hard-nosed, cheap-skate ways, but because over the last three decades the Clippers have had one of the worst winning percentages in of all sports.  In 2010, Sterling was even called out for heckling members of his own team from his courtside seats.  The victim of the abuse, Baron Davis, reportedly lost his love of basketball thanks to Sterling and struggled to find a place on the rising Clippers squad.  After all, if your boss treats you with disrespect and hatred what reason is there to want to come through for that person?

For those whose abhorrence of Sterling is based solely on this scandal, I need to inform you that this is only the most recent example in a long list of wrongdoings.  In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Donald Sterling for multiple instances of “housing discrimination.”  As a real estate mogul—or the more appropriate title of "Slumlord"—Sterling owned several apartment buildings in LA yet refused to rent to certain tenets based solely on their race.  The lawsuit mentions that Sterling would not rent to Korean’s in Koreantown nor would he rent to certain Latinos and Blacks as he felt they were lazy and did not do anything other than, “sit around.”  Several additional suits claim that Sterling used bigoted language around his coaches as well as former Clips GM, and NBA Legend, Elgin Baylor.   Baylor went so far as to say that Sterling possessed a, “plantation mentality.” 

Not only has Sterling been implicated in numerous examples of hateful speech and bigotry, he is also reputed to be misogynistic.  A 2003 lawsuit against a former mistress claimed that Sterling paid the woman $500 each time they had sex as a way to “thank her.”  Not to mention that the “girlfriend” who purportedly leaked the recent voice recordings is a good looking twenty five year-old who appears to have no business associating with Sterling other than to appease his sexual quirks.  Sterling holds the longest "rap-sheet" on racial bigotry in all of sports, yet I can promise you that he will use the legal system to fight the NBA and their demands that he sell the team.  Sterling is a crotchety "good old boy" who will not tolerate being ousted from his cushy position of Clippers owner.  Without question, Sterling’s viewpoints expressed on the recording are dangerous to society.   However his role as a slumlord, one he apparently relished, is far more reprehensible and should have been the transgression that resulted in such heavy punishment.  There have been repeated attempts to remove Sterling from the NBA, but shouldn’t a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice be the final straw?  We as fans, and citizens of the United States, can feel good about the stiff penalties but lest we forget that this all could have been avoided.   Sterling was a bad man long before this tape surfaced, but his secret recorded bigoted tirade was apparently the definitive evidence needed to expel him indefinitely.


I certainly agree with those who feel there was, "No place in the NBA," for someone like Sterling.  However, am I the only one thinking about how many owners would be ousted if every conversation was recorded and leaked to the media?  This particular thought led to my search to identify the races of the major sports franchise owners in North America.   In a wonderfully succinct article from sports site Five Thirty Eight ( data showed that of the 49 majority owners of NBA franchises, only one is African-American.  That would of course be Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats.  As for the NFL?  Again only one owner, Pakistani born Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars was listed as "Asian."  The same can be said of MLB, where only majority owner, Arturo Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, is racially categorized other than white.  If such a drastically low percentage of racial diversity exists within an elitist hierarchy of exceptionally wealthy people, why then are we all so outraged when one of these owners is exposed as a racist?  Owning a sports team is one of the most glamorous opportunities afforded to the super-rich, and apparently is only a luxury that white men can enjoy.  This data goes on to lend more support to the notion that a racially biased system exists that allows primarily white-males a greater opportunity than others and that they in turn only further propagate the system with their beliefs and actions.

Furthermore, will removing Donald Sterling from the NBA ultimately have any greater impact on society as a whole?  My gut wants me to believe that this will be true.  That we will learn from this example and be able to avoid instances of this in the future.  However, my brain is telling me that the ousting of a singular racist man from the sporting world will not change anything as many others already exist in hiding.  Granted 99% of owners will be more careful about whom they associate with and what they say, but I do not believe that an engrained mindset of racial intolerance will change all together.  Sure, Silver's ban of Sterling looks good for PR, but I do not feel as though it will keep others from having racially biased views.  Despite how good it looks in the media, the removal of Sterling is nothing more than a Band-Aid covering the festering wound of intolerance on the body of America. 

You would like to believe that in sports, of all places, racism would be nearly obsolete.  However as Sterling, and last year’s Richie Incognito story show, this is not the case.  It has been nearly seventy years since Jackie Robinson laced up his spikes for the Dodgers, but here we are still discussing racism in sports.  As I’ve examined before, locker-room culture is an atmosphere that is being radically altered due to the recent bullying accusations against Incognito and the coming out of several athletes.  Just as the NFL and Roger Goodell took action last summer, Silver is standing tall this year.  Sports are not immune to the social changes of the world, and I truly believe that sports teams can be part of the solution. If our American past-times can learn to accept anyone, regardless of any color or orientation, then there is hope for the rest of us to do the same.


One part of sports culture that is not discussed nearly enough is the shadowy realm of sports owners.  Sure, any basketball fan has witnessed Mark Cuban either elated with boyish joy or despondent with referee-induced anger.  For Cuban, it is either a “you love him or you hate him” kind of thing.  No matter which one you choose you can admit that his attitude and total immersion is good for the game.  Cuban wants to be in tune with his players and that, to me, evokes a sense of responsibility and understanding so greatly absent in the actions of Donald Sterling.  For most sports teams the owners sit in a private box with a personal chef, their closest friends, and either a twenty year-old bottle of scotch or a twenty year-old smoke show blonde.  (Cut to angry photo of Jerry Jones steaming over another Tony Romo interception from his private box.)   As we’ve come to expect, those with money are often times surround by other people with money.  If you create that distance between owner and player you open yourself up to the belief that you are better and immune to anyone disliking you, because you pay their checks.   The NBA is, after all, yet another version of a workplace where employees are hired to perform a job for money.  Sure their occupation is more physically demanding and the checks have far more zeros than most, but it is a profession.  We, as consumers, have also created that same distance between the things we buy and consume.  This allows many of us to look down on those who butcher our meat or manufacture our iPhones because we’re the ones spending our hard-earned money on their product. 

We, as a society, cannot accept these comments from Sterling, and the media/societal outrage following the statements has been appropriate and accurate.  That being said, we cannot lull ourselves into believing that this type of behavior has been eradicated from the minds of our fellow citizens or other franchise owners.  Even now, in my racially homogenous workplace, off-hand, borderline bigoted comments are made on an almost daily basis, all of which make me uncomfortable.  Yet, when does it become appropriate to step in and say, "That isn't right.  You shouldn't say that?"  Although these comments are made in a vastly different environment than that of the uber-wealthy sports owners, they still have the same basic sentiments behind them.  When we are surrounded by people of our own skin color or belief systems, we tend to allow ourselves to say something we wouldn’t necessarily utter somewhere else.  For example a co-employee who makes a knock against a Latino applicant’s inability to speak English in the presence of an all-white audience in turn mimics the exact same type of behavior as Donald Sterling. 

Donald Sterling has been a tumor for the NBA since he bought the Clippers in ’81 and I’m sure there isn’t a single athlete, fan, or person who wishes he would stick around.  With Adam Silver's ground-breaking decision to ban Sterling for life, a serious precedent has been set for anything that may follow after this.  If you can disown a man from his near billion dollar franchise for making these kinds of comments, everyone else should be held to the same standards.  No matter where you work, who your friends are, and what you do—there is no room for racial based hatred on any scale.  Sure, you might be able to play it off with the, “It was just a joke,” but at the heart of what you say and do is your moral foundation and if that is rotten, then the whole proverbial house will fall down—just  like it did to Donald Sterling. 

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