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The NBA has been lauded for its swift action following the release of audio with Donald Sterling making offensive remarks about minorities, specifically Magic Johnson. In the rush to praise, many questions have gone unasked. Let’s go down the rabbit hole together.
Why were people so convinced that Donald Sterling was a racist before the release of the TMZ tapes?
He’s notoriously cheap (including paying NBA players late), a known sexist, and has been sued multiple times for discrimination against minorities in different industries. Perhaps the most damning of these accusations is the lawsuit for housing discrimination levied by the Department of Justice which settled for a record $2.725 million. The release pertaining to the case by the Department of Justice alleged the following:
The lawsuit, filed by the Justice Department in August 2006, alleged that the defendants, Donald T. Sterling, his wife Rochelle Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust, engaged in discriminatory rental practices on the basis of race, national origin and familial status (having children under 18) at various apartment buildings that they own and manage in Los Angeles. Among other things, the suit alleged that the defendants discriminated against non-Korean tenants and prospective tenants at buildings the defendants owned in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles.
In court filings, for example, the United States presented evidence that the defendants’ employees prepared internal reports that identified the race of tenants at properties the defendants purchased in Koreatown. Additionally, the defendants made statements to employees at Koreatown buildings indicating that African-Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants. The United States also presented expert analysis in court filings showing that the defendants rented to far fewer Hispanics and African-Americans in Koreatown which than would be expected based on income and other demographic characteristics.
Obviously, that’s a lot more impactful than words on a tape.
What is housing discrimination and what are its consequences?
Housing discrimination is discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, etc., as it pertains to housing and real estate which includes rental discrimination, sales discrimination, lending discrimination, and denial of homeowners insurance.
The effects for minorities have been devastating. In short, it basically institutionalizes segregation by separating who lives where. This influences where businesses are willing to invest, where decent jobs can be found, where crime takes place, and so forth.
Many resources on the internet cover housing discrimination in grand detail. Here are two recent columns on the subject:
- “Housing Discrimination More Subtle, But Still Absurdly High” by Chris Hoenig
That sounds really bad! Why didn’t the NBA do anything once the Department of Justice sued Donald Sterling?
Any journalist who directs questions about the NBA’s inaction to their front office gets this response.
The concise answer is that owners do not want to kick out owners. Unless it hurts the bottom line, no one wants to get involved. Shitty but true. Action took place because public outcry reached a penny-pinching pitch. Sponsors began to pull and Sterling was banned less than 96 hours after the TMZ taped was leaked.
The NBA claims it cares about diversity. Given this claim, the unanimous praise of Sterling’s lifetime ban, $2.5 million fine, and subsequent sale of the Los Angeles Clippers have a hollow ring since Sterling’s actions have been documented since jheri curls were still a thing. During the press conference to ban Donald Sterling for life, NBA commissioner Adam Silver explained that the NBA’s hands were tied.
Q. Just to be clear, you said when specific evidence was brought to the league you did act. In past cases, has Donald Sterling ever been fined or suspended for racial or offensive remarks, and if not, why not?
ADAM SILVER: He’s never been suspended or fined by the league because while there have been well documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit. That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention. When those two litigations were brought, they were followed closely by the league office.
If those two litigations were closely followed, why were no fines or suspensions handed down at that time? The NBA should not be given credit for doing the right thing because it was the only thing to do. Anything else was considered unacceptable because of public relations. The bottom line is what pushed the NBA to swift action, not a strong conviction to do what’s right.
Isn’t that harsh? Didn’t the NBA need the backing of the public before taking action?
That’s fair. If David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, wanted to go after Sterling, he would still need the backing of the public, or the NBA might have a difficult time getting enough votes among the NBA’s Board of Governors to kick Sterling out of the league. Public pressure made that happen. But if public pressure and the media should be given credit for this, we also have to keep in mind that literally very few people hooted and hollered about Sterling’s behavior before the TMZ tape. The public often has its opinion swayed by media coverage instead of facts even when the information is readily available to them. Jimmy Kimmel did a great job of demonstrating this fact on his late night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live.
It was weird watching discourse about Sterling tapes. People were right to be enraged and bewildered by TMZ, but sometimes folks were misquoting Sterling to give additional venom to his comments or injecting sentiments that were difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, Sterling asked V. Stiviano, the woman who leaked the tape, to not bring black people to the games. That’s not the same as saying, “Black people are not allowed at my games.” It’s a distinction that not many see as important. Both are racist statements. One implies jealousy while the other implies a hatred for all black people.
Another awful example is saying that Sterling had a slave mentality, implying a superiority complex as if Sterling were the slave master and the players were slaves. This transcript excerpt comes courtesy of Deadspin.
V: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.
DS: Well then, if you don’t feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.
V: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?
The problem with calling this a clear example of slave mentality is that most sports owners feel this way. The numbers fluctuate but Major League Baseball has hovered around 70 percent white for the past 10 years. MLB has the most lockouts of the major American sports and the MLB owners always say they are the ones who make it possible for Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Cliff Lee, Masahiro Tanaka, and many others to make over $20 million a year. The same is true of many other businesses, including those where workers strike for pay above minimum wage. It’s not a far leap in logic to say that Sterling sees his players as slaves, but using the tape as evidence is nearly as foolish as those people above believing that Obamacare is evil and the Affordable Care Act is good.
To bolster the claim that Sterling is definitely a racist, pundits mention how he and his mistress of the month went into locker rooms on multiple occasions to stare at the bodies of Clippers’ players while making comments such as, “Look at their beautiful black bodies.” Very creepy indeed. Again, it’s easy to say that a white man going into a locker room to admire the black men is an antebellum ritual, but this is not far removed from what happens during the drafts for sports leagues or even the ease at which sports culture dehumanizes black athletes.
The word specimen is thrown around for black athletes in the media as if they are on the auction block. No one uses the word specimen for white athletes. It literally never happens no matter how athletic the white guy is. Specimen is a simple noun used for a thing, not a person. The word is so ingrained in sports that no one even flinches at its use.
Ok, we get it. Everyone has some blame. But why was Mark Cuban willing to defend Donald Sterling during this debacle?
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, never defended Sterling or his views, although Cuban was often accused of doing so. The NBA’s Board of Governors was set to meet on June 3 to decide if Sterling would remain owner of the Clippers before the team was sold for $2 billion to Steve Ballmer. Many claimed that anything outside of a unanimous vote would anger players, media, sponsors, and fans. Whoever did not vote to kick Sterling out of the league would be held responsible. Cuban called Sterling’s comments on the TMZ tape “abhorrent” but hesitated to say he would support kicking Sterling out because it would start a slippery slope. Everything Cuban said after that was considered a defense of Sterling so almost no one was willing to agree with him on the record.
In an attempt at building an honest discourse, Cuban talked about his own biases and claimed that everyone is a bigot. He went on to say that we all have to work on these things everyday, and there’s no way to legislate stupidity. The comments were taken as a defense of Sterling, fair or not.
Ballmer’s purchase of the Clippers cancelled the vote to kick Sterling out, but people were still interested to see how Cuban would have voted. He gave an answer during an interview with Spike Lee on XM radio.
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The key quote from Cuban during this interview reads as follows: “I’m not going to jump to conclusions because it’s not fair to the process and if the process is … Look, if you want to f**k up everything, f**k up the process and then you have a lawsuit forever.”
Cuban’s sentiment is one consistent with the fair trial process that Americans believe in. The NBA has details the public will never know, and would have only been revealed to the people in the room with the NBA’s Board of Governors during the vote. Cuban’s point the entire time was speaking to the process and delaying judgment until hearing all of the evidence, not defending Sterling. A unanimous vote without fair trail would provide grounds for a lawsuit.
What does this mean going forward for other owners or players who are recorded saying something offensive?
This is unclear. Donald Sterling is a special case because many people in the media dislike him, and he had a history of public and private racism. Enough of the right people liked Sterling before this fiasco to shield him from valid attacks on his reputation and business practices. What it solidifies is that the public cares more about sentiments than actions. Athletes and sports owners accused and convicted of actual crimes often have a better chance of reshaping their public image than those caught making offensive, yet private, comments.
The lesson here: Do what you want and say what you want, just don’t get caught keeping it 100 on a recording.
That says way more about us than it does about Sterling.
Featured image courtesy of Craig Dietrich/Flickr.