By Jason Keidel
Let’s assume that the agreement between former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and the Sterling Family Trust to buy the Los Angeles Clippers is binding, legal, and inevitable. If Donald Sterling will indeed be swept under the rug of memory, his Jim Crow ideology and Bull Connor comments along with him, then…
What have we learned from Donald Sterling?
It’s hard to emerge from the Sterling saga with a slogan, a rock-solid, societal algorithm that gives us answers, clarity, or comfort. In fact, the last month has raised nothing but questions.
Is Sterling a renegade racist who hasn’t read a newspaper since the Civil Rights Movement? Or is he emblematic of a wider problem? Is there more systemic racism than we care to admit? Or is Sterling a single, stone-age dolt whose views are way worse and more unwelcome than his winning percentage?
Since many of us didn’t think this mindset still existed in sports, or at least in the NBA, where minorities dominate the hardwood and are given more chances to prosper in management and ownership than in other team sport, maybe Sterling is just one member of a troubling, underground philosophy. We can only hope he speaks, acts, and thinks alone.
Is his wife Shelly a victim by proximity, caught in the verbal debris of her hateful husband? Or is she dumb like a fox, married 60 years to the very man who recites racism by rote? Why is she still married to him, by the way? Why was he hideous one night, and her loving hubby the next? It could turn out that Mrs. Sterling is the most dishonest person in this whole theater.
Is the NBA culpable in any of this? It’s been suggested that Adam Silver did David Stern’s job for him, that Silver inherited this monster despite ample evidence against Donald Sterling. Forget his haunting remarks during that phone call. The Los Angeles Times ran a feature on the galling extent of his malfeasance, his moral rap sheet longer than the Magna Carta.
Sterling has been a member of a most exclusive group of NBA owners – an aristocratic club with assumed virtues, yet he was allowed to stampede over the public with impunity. Now they will vote by proxy from their private planes, purging themselves of any guilt because they, like us, are just as shocked to learn that their colleague was a villain for decades.
You can argue that many of us in the media dropped the proverbial ball on Sterling, but we didn’t work with him or for him. The idea that The Association is the White Knight in all of this is a little disingenuous. Surely some of them got a whiff of Sterling’s subterranean ethos long before this.
Are we more likely to chat about any delicate or toxic topic? Or shall we just turtle and wait for the next guy to take the shelling for sharing? Everyone agrees that Sterling is a really bad guy, but if you even suggest his views during a private conversation are his business, you evidently agree with them.
Charles Barkley, basketball’s goofball laureate, and sneaky smart on social issues, said it’s not illegal to be a bigot. He’s correct. But there’s no reward in pointing that out. Since the world is so rabid over Sterling’s remarks, we don’t care what happens to him. We must all agree that he should be heaved overboard from the good ship basketball. And while it’s almost impossible to argue that he should keep the Clippers, a lawyer could make a good point about taking someone’s property or business based on private thoughts. Maybe it sets a bad precedent. Or maybe this is the exact right thing to do. But debating it isn’t.
In Sterling’s case, his comments are almost moot because he’s got an endless history of mistreating minorities. That’s the part that should trouble us the most, that he wasn’t vetted over the last 30 years, not the last 30 days. His wretched invectives at his gumar didn’t hurt anyone in any legal sense. But his life as a litigator, slumlord, and employer reeks of racism. If you haven’t read that story from the LA Times, please do so – just not right after you’ve eaten.
Are we more apt to discuss prejudice, pivoting off Sterling’s rancid worldview? Or are we more inclined to shut up before expressing any candid view, even if our motives are benign? Mark Cuban was roasted for expressing his. And while his hoodie analogy was misguided, it feels like he wanted to advance the dialogue. If someone of Cuban’s heft can’t say what he means, what chance does John Q Public have if he takes a shot at some earnest, honest feelings?
Is an NBA team really worth $2 billion? Well, when you have $20 billion, it doesn’t matter. When a rich dude demands a toy, he generally gets one. And we don’t particularly care who owns the Clippers as long as his last name isn’t Sterling. Steve Ballmer may figure that the PR bump he gets as the man who replaced Donald Sterling is worth overpaying for the team.
What does it say about us when Donald Sterling is the most hated man in America? According to a poll conducted by E-Score, 92 percent of Americans loathe the disgraced billionaire. (1,100 were surveyed.) He’s ahead of Bernie Madoff, which is interesting. But he’s also six spots ahead of Aaron Hernandez who’s charged with murdering three people since 2012.
Does racism pay? Sterling’s “punishment” includes a $2 billion infusion into his checking account. Forbes estimates that the Clippers are worth about $550 million – which is what the Milwaukee Bucks sold for this month – yet the Clippers, the most toxic team in sports, sells for four times that amount. Sterling will pay more than that in capital gains tax ($662 million).
Sure, Sterling was bound to make money on the deal by dint of his long-term ownership, having bought the team for about $12.5 million in 1981. But how did it balloon into the billions? Nothing in their history suggests or warrants that price.
The Clippers have won four playoff series since 1971, when they were the Buffalo Braves. By all accounts, the Clippers have a lousy deal with the Staples Center, from which they see no revenue for luxury suites, and an anemic TV contract with FOX, which yields about $20 million annually. They aren’t the most popular team in their own state, city, or building. Yet they sell for Dallas Cowboys coin. If the Clippers are unloaded for $2 billion, what are the New York Yankees worth?
We’d like to think we’re more enlightened, as people and a culture. And we’d like to think that even in the bowels of bigotry we can extract some lessons, for our internal and external monologues.
But some people, some words, some thoughts are so nuclear that we would be wise to just avoid the blast radius altogether. If there are teachable moments, this doesn’t feel like one.
Beyond rooting for our favorite team, sports provide a platform from which we express ourselves in myriad ways. Our opinions are as diverse as the sports we love, the teams we root for, and the people who root for them. But sometimes it doesn’t pay to have an opinion. And if you do, keep it to yourself.
Maybe that’s what Donald Sterling taught us, which isn’t much of a lesson, at all.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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