By: Judson L. Jeffries, PhD
For the past thirty years Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been well known for two things: a) referring to people of color, namely African Americans in a most offensive manner and b) being the worst owner in North American professional sports. In 1984, this miscreant purchased the San Diego Clippers and promptly moved the team north. At the time, many of his fellow NBA compatriots forbade him to do so. When he defied them, David Stern’s NBA slapped him with a $25 million fine. Undeterred, Sterling countersued for $100 million. The fine was eventually lowered to $6 million, at which time Sterling dropped his suit. Rather than remain in San Diego, a burgeoning locale where the Clippers were the only basketball show in town, Sterling transplanted them to LA where they were forced to compete with one of the most recognizable, marketable and lucrative sports brands in North America, then and now. In fact, I can think of no city in professional sports where one team has more consistently played second banana to the other than have the Clippers to the Lakers, winners of 16 NBA championships. Indeed under Sterling’s stewardship the Clippers fast replaced Cleveland as the Siberia of the NBA, not for its location obviously, but because of the organization’s perennial losing ways. For years, the Clippers were mired in mediocrity (I’m being nice) primarily due to poor draft day decisions, attrition within the coaching ranks, and a penchant for either signing free agents who were way past their prime or trading for players whose potential never seemed to actualize in a Clippers uniform. The Clippers organization was considered a place where careers go to die. Even now, with the Clippers winning and the Lakers losing, LA is still a Lakers town and probably always will be.
Sterling’s recent comments are perhaps news to the casual basketball fan, but not to those who follow the game closely. In the past, more than one player has made mention of Sterling’s racist tendencies. Simply put, on the issue of race this ignoramus “outed” himself eons ago. Many agree that there is no place in the NBA or society for that matter, for comments like those. Although the socially conscious are well aware that there are millions of Donald Sterlings among us; they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. What is also clear to me and has been for a long time is that whenever a person reveals him or herself to be someone who goes about the business of preventing others from the pursuit of life, liberty or happiness based on race, gender, age or some other feature used to discriminate a consequence has to be exacted.
Public denouncements have been made by people such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley, to name a few. There has, however, been no public outcry from the league’s thirty owners. Sure, we’ve heard from Mark Cuban and a few others, but there has been no avalanche of criticism from within those ranks. Some have insisted that the other owners should pressure Sterling to sell the team. As stung as Cuban seemed to be by Sterling’s venom, Cuban treaded lightly when asked if Sterling should be ousted as owner of the Clippers. “That is a very slippery slope” said Cuban. Michael Jordan was seemingly the first and to date only NBA owner to call out Sterling and insist that he be forced to sell the team.
Interestingly, when Sterling broached the topic of moving the team from San Diego to LA in 1984 many NBA owners dug in their heels and warned Sterling not to. Even the newly minted commissioner David Stern took issue with Sterling’s public defiance and fined him a significant amount of money for his brazenness. As of this writing new Commissioner, Adam Silver has issued a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban on Sterling preventing him, from participating in any way shape or form in the operations, business or otherwise of the Los Angeles Clippers, specifically and the NBA generally. While Silver does not have the authority to force Sterling to sell the team he has indicated that his recommendation to the other owners will be just that.
While Commissioner Silver’s actions are a step in the right direction there is still work to be done. Moreover, his actions do not absolve others from taking appropriate action. If Sterling is to be completely deposed, the fans, players, sponsors and media personnel have to play an active role in his complete ousting. Indeed, there are those within upper Clippers management who worked for Sterling and therefore served as enablers. In other words, they co-signed on Sterling’s behavior, unwittingly or not.
One of the most effective weapons of the Black Freedom struggle has been the economic boycott. Systems, paradigms and regimes have been changed as a result of economic boycotts. It is one thing to complain about racial inequality and unfair treatment and quite another to do something about it. Fans, players, sponsors and media personnel have a responsibility to send a clear message to the Clippers organization that such lewd behavior will not be tolerated in the future. They need to make clear that the person picked to run the Clippers organization from this point forward will not be a protégé of Sterling for obvious reasons.
Some folk knowingly subject themselves to unfair treatment day in and day out. For more than twenty years, the Clippers’ general manager was a Black man who was paid no more than $250,000 annually while many of his counterparts around the league were paid in the millions. How does one account for this? Simple, many of us prefer to go along in order to get along. A few years ago Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that when it comes to matters of race we are a nation of cowards. Who can argue with that observation, although Holder is one to talk. After all, I’m still waiting for him to charge George Zimmerman with violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights.