Let's get the preliminaries out of the way: Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist comments. There is an authenticated audio-recording of the comments, so we know that the comments were made and that Sterling was the one who made them. The comments are problematic in any context but especially in the NBA, where 78% of the players are Black. Understandably, the league is upset -- the comments are offensive and damage its brand.
The players, the owners, and the fans are also outraged, if not surprised. Sterling has a history. We all want sports to reflect the best qualities of our society. Sure, there is racism in America, but we want sports to rise above it, to be the one place that operates as a true meritocracy, the one place where the color of your skin doesn't matter and where athletes of all races and backgrounds transcend race as a unified team.
Sterling's comments shattered this fantasy. They showed that sports are not immune to racism. Of course, deep in the recesses of our soul, we've known this all along. We are surprised and not surprised.
Yesterday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced a fine of $2.5 million and a lifetime ban of Sterling from the NBA and indicated that the league would attempt to force him to sell the team. Preliminary reports suggest that the owners, including outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (more on him later), are likely to unanimously support the commissioner's decision. The legalese of all this will need to be sorted out, but it seems like the 80-year-old Sterling is likely to be out of the NBA for good. Everyone celebrates.
On the surface, Silver's uncompromising response is well worth celebrating. Along with the widespread condemnation of Sterling's comments by players, owners, and fans, the NBA's response seems to suggest that we've come a long way as a society. Indeed, we have. Taking a stand against explicit racism has become so politically safe even Michael Jordan is willing to do it.
And so, we've all jumped on the Silver bandwagon, sports fans and non fans alike, not only because our support of Silver allows us to believe we stand with the righteous against racism but also because it's a victory, if only a symbolic one, against the top 1%. As Ellen DeGeneres tweeted, Silver's announcement is an indication that "no amount of money excludes you from treating other people with respect."
We all love to pile on a villain and Sterling's past provides more than enough data to establish this latest incident as part of a long pattern of racial intolerance and insensitivity. In other words, Sterling's comments and past actions allow us to feel good about ourselves by creating a sharp divide between what Sterling said and did and our own benevolent feelings and egalitarian beliefs. We see Sterling as qualitatively different than us: He is the racist; We're the good guys standing up against racism. And winning! What's not to celebrate?
But are we really winning? It's nice to get rid of a bad apple, but the unpleasant reality is that sports, like the rest of society, is filled with men and women who have inconsistent, illogical, and complicated feelings about race and racial Others. Sterling's comments were in very poor taste and should not be swept under the rug, but they are also, as Jason Whitlock points out, not very different from what many Americans have said in similar situations. Here's an excerpt from Whitlock's excellent column:
Much of what Sterling said on the tape is a rambling mess that can be interpreted many ways by sophisticated, mature and objective ears. To my ears, he doesn't care that his mistress has black friends. He doesn't care if she has sexual relationships with black men. He's married. They're not in a monogamous relationship. He simply does not want her extracurricular activities, particularly when they might involve black men, flaunted at his basketball games or all over Instagram.
This conversation, while grotesque and abhorrent, is not remotely unique or limited to old white men. My father was hood-rich, good looking and a playa who enjoyed the company of a younger, kept woman. Many of his friends had similar tastes. Their private conversations about dating could sound every bit as abhorrent and grotesque as Sterling's. I've heard young black men and women engage in equally grotesque and abhorrent private conversations, particularly when their feelings are hurt or they feel betrayed.
In my view, Silver and the NBA made the easy choice. The league is arguably better off without Sterling. It is clearly better off without the public relations nightmare that would have resulted if Silver's response was more measured. In this way, the NBA also made the right choice, for itself, though I must admit that I have some hope that its actions might inspire other corporations and individuals to engage in racial justice efforts.
But "easy" and "right" are not synonyms for "just" and getting rid of Sterling won't get rid of the racism that exists in both the NBA and the larger society. I'll elaborate.
In regard to justice, as much as I deplore Sterling's comments, I'm troubled by a $2.5 million penalty for comments made in the privacy of one's own home to a romantic partner (that Stiviano girlfriend/mistress is almost 60 years younger and part Black and Latino is also telling but that's a subject for another day) and with no knowledge that the conversation was being recorded. How many of us would want those kinds of comments to be made public? How many of us might also be embarrassed by what might come out? How many of us might reveal our racism/sexism/classism under such circumstances? Yes, Sterling is the villain of this story, but as Kareem Abdul Jabbar suggests, the rest of us are not so innocent. Do we really want our employers to hold us publicly accountable for things we say in the privacy of our own home? I don't disagree with the league's actions, but I am troubled that only Cuban has brought this up as something to be concerned about.
In the preface to his poem Call Me By My True Names, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1987, p. 62) recounts a story of a young girl who threw herself into the ocean after being raped by a pirate. He then explains that, though it is easy and natural to condemn the pirate, he came to realize that if he had himself "been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions" that he too would have likely become a pirate. Notably, psychological research, including classic studies by Milgram (1963) on obedience and Zimbardo (2007) on situational pressures support Hanh's assertion that most people are capable of doing harm, even in the context of relatively small and short-term environmental manipulations.
The implications of this kind of universal potential to do harm are profound. If we believe, as both Hanh posits and psychological research demonstrates, that our communities create the conditions for harm to occur, then a justice response has to not only respond to the needs of those directly involved but also to the needs of the community in which the harmful act took place. In many ways, this is exactly what the NBA commissioner did, first by talking to players and other owners and then by taking steps to address the NBA community's needs for fairness and justice. It matters, as well, that Silver has promised that the $2.5 million fine will be donated to organizations doing anti-racism work. This is all as it should be and I commend the league for its actions.
But on another level, Silver's response addressed the symptom rather than the cause. If we agree with Hanh and social scientists that our communities are responsible for creating the conditions for harm to occur, then it is not only the person who did the harm who must be held accountable but also the community itself. This does not make the so-called "offender" any less responsible. It just expands the circle of responsibility so that it is not only Sterling who is responsible but also the league that failed to adequately respond to past transgressions and the larger society that continues to socialize our children into a false racial hierarchy.
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