by John Furgele
This is not a defense of Donald Sterling, let’s make that clear. Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 1981, a franchise that began as the Buffalo Braves, then became the San Diego Clippers before reaching Los Angeles. Since 1981, the Clippers have been mostly laughable and Sterling has been synonymous with frugality, corner cutting and losing. In 2013-2014, the Clippers are in the playoffs and are led by two stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. That makes this peculiar because now that the Clippers are good, bad things continue to plague the franchise.
Most of us have heard the audio tape of what allegedly is Sterling talking to his girlfriend about minorities, more importantly, Sterling’s distaste and dislike of them. It must be pointed out that Sterling’s girlfriend is accused of embezzling $1.8 million from him, so one has to wonder why she would record a conversation such as this. The one thing that’s likely true is that this wasn’t the first racist conversation between Sterling and his former girlfriend. I’m sure these conversations were commonplace well before the April 26 tape came out.
The easy thing that everybody is saying is that Sterling should be forced to sell the Clippers or that he should be thrown out of the league. Folks, you can’t just force somebody to do that, nor can you just kick out an owner of a NBA team. Sterling has been a wildcat owner since he took over and that was in 1981, that was 33 years ago. He has been accused of being a racist before and he has been sued for being a racist. Those charges that he discriminated against minorities in housing were never proven, so for the record, Sterling is clean, though his water is tinged with dirt. And, despite this, he has never been sanctioned by the NBA, in other words, there are no strikes against him. By the time Marge Schott was forced to sell the Cincinnati Reds, there were a few pages of transgressions.
Sterling employs black people. His coach is black, most of his players are black and for many years, his GM, the legendary Elgin Baylor was one of a few black general managers in all of sport. But, just because he employs blacks doesn’t mean he is not a racist. The one thing to remember is the black people that he employs are his subordinates, meaning that he had the power, the control over them that racists love to have. It’s no different than the slaveowner back in 1845. That owner might have been cordial to his slaves, might have even slept with his slaves, but in the end, he, as slaveowner had the power and control. Sterling will no doubt use that in his defense, if in fact, that was his voice on that recording. I can hear it now: “how can I own a team in a league that 70 percent of the players are black and be a racist?” He will use that to plead his case, even though that really won’t change the fact that Sterling is likely a bigoted man. He employed blacks, but he was the boss; they had to kiss his butt to keep their jobs and for Sterling, he probably justified that as his way of keeping him down. Sure, I’ll hire blacks, but they’re my pawns and they will do what I say.
Of all the major sports, the NBA has always had it the toughest, which isn’t fair, but it’s always been the truth. If you look around the arenas of all pro sports, the majority of those in the seats are white, and because tickets are no longer affordable, these fans are middle aged with money in their bank accounts. How many times have you listened to sports talk radio, heard a white man call in and say “I don’t watch the NBA,” or “I can’t take the NBA?” Unless you’re under a rock, the answer is many times. Though these white, middle aged men don’t say it, there comments are tinged with racist tones. They don’t like the fact that 70 percent of the league is black and that these black guys make more money in one season than they will make in 25. So, rather than appreciate the high level of play, they announce that they don’t like the game anymore, even though as kids, when they spent nights working at Burger King, they watched the game.
Even though the NFL has a large percentage of black players, these white men watch because the quarterbacks of these teams are usually white guys, so that makes it okay. And, there are enough white guys on each team to make it acceptable. They don’t knock Major League Baseball because the black percentages have slipped mightily over the years and even though there are many latino stars, the language barrier and the fact that these players live in their homelands once the season ends makes them less visible. As for the NHL, 97 percent of the players are white but because the guy in Mississippi doesn’t watch hockey, it really doesn’t register.
If the NBA had more white players, if the ratio was 50/50 or if there were more Larry Bird type stars in the league, that bitter, jealous middle aged white guy wouldn’t call Mike Francesa and express his disdain for the NBA and its players. I’ve heard these callers claiming that players are tanking, coasting and not putting out great effort over the 82 game grind that is an NBA season. These same people never call out NHL players for doing that in their 82 game grind. I wonder why?
As sad as this sounds, there are many that probably share Sterling’s sentiments. Sterling feels that blacks are inferior and that they should be grateful that he employs them in the NBA and for the Clippers. There is jealously, because the NBA is about the players; they’re the stars of the league, not the owner and that probably doesn’t sit well with slaveowner Sterling.
Perception is perceived as reality and the perception is that the NBA is too black for America. The league is full of thugs and bad people, even though more NFL players get arrested than NBA players. These middle aged white men watch NBA games and complain that the effort isn’t there or complain that the players are overpaid while they work many hours and are more educated than these NBA players. What illustrates my point the most is that these same middle aged white guys love college basketball. They will call Mike Francesa and say, “I hate the NBA but love watching college,” and Francesa, to his credit will ask why, and they will come up with the phony reasons that there is more ball movement, more team play and less one-on-one play. But, the real reason is simple: money. The college kids don’t get paid to play, so they play “for the love of the game,” while the black NBA player only cares about the paycheck. College basketball is a plantation system at its best, and disgustingly, it’s legal. These college kids make the universities millions and billions of dollars while playing for free, but in the NBA, because they get paid handsomely, it rubs the middle aged white guy the wrong way. I’ll hear Francesa try to draw that out of the callers and they continue to hide behind what they said earlier. And, as good as the NCAA tournament is, the games are often close, but they’re filled with low shooting percentages and missed free throws galore. The NBA, even with two 10-30 teams playing is leaps better than the college game.
These same guys don’t love college football as much as NFL football. They can get over it, because Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are the stars and the mouthpieces of the league. These guys know that even though there are lots of blacks playing in the league, the argument can still be made that the best players are white, ala Manning and Brady. In the NBA, the best players have always been black, from Wilt Chamberlain, to Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan to the present day LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant. The white middle aged guy doesn’t like it, so they proclaim that they have abandoned the NBA. Of course, they rooted for Larry Bird and as great as Bird was, he shared MVPs with Julius Erving, Jabbar and Johnson and the water cooler talk often focused on who was better, Bird or Johnson, or as the white guy says, the “good old days of the NBA.”
What happens with Sterling remains to be seen. He may decide to sell the team and get out of the league. He will certainly make a lot of money should he sell. But, he may become defiant and decide that he’s going nowhere, the NBA be damned. He knows, like the rest of us, that this will blow over. In some ways, I’m surprised that nobody brought up the famous Ted Koppel/Al Campanis interview from 1986. When questioned why there weren’t more blacks in management positions in baseball, Campanis said that “they lacked the necessities,” to be in such positions. Campanis was immediately dismissed, but he didn’t own the Dodgers, he just worked for them. Sterling owns the Clippers, so we can’t expect him to dismiss himself.
Once again, this proves that even though we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. In fact, racism may never go away, so let’s not think that it will. The middle aged white guy, jealous of the black NBA guy will continue to share his anti-NBA opinions rather than keep them to himself, which would be preferred. But, remember, this guy likes to watch college basketball and because of that, he’s not showing racist tones.
The NBA is a great league with great players. As a white man, do I like to see a white guy do well? Yes, just like a black guy wants to see Tiger Woods do well. But, I want LeBron James on my team, whether he’s black, white, green or blue. I want him and Dirk Nowitzki because if I have them, I’m winning games.