By Bob Gaydos
Once again sports, which are supposed to be diversions from real life for most of us, have delivered a morality play. There is no title for this tragicomedy, nor indeed, a final act. What there is is a villainous main character who offers many reasons for hating him, a crucial supporting character who will win no accolades for her own behavior, and a host of bit players, who find common ground in attacking the main character.
The villain is Donald Sterling, a narcissistic white male, 80-year-old, pot-bellied, misogynistic, racist, adulterer, liar, ingrate, real estate tycoon, lawyer, multi-millionaire, who owns the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team.
Sterling would have been right at home as a plantation owner in the Old South. Until recently, he had a 31-year-old girlfriend/mistress (the latest in a succession of women to whom he admits he gave lavish gifts in exchange for sex). The girlfriend, V. Stiviano, is the supporting character.
In a taped private conversation made public, Sterling tells Stiviano he doesn't want her posting photos on the Internet of herself with "black men" or coming to Clippers games with black men, including Magic Johnson. Stiviano is of Mexican and African-American heritage. Sterling's basketball team is composed of African-American men. Indeed, more than 90 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association, in which the Clippers play, are African-American.
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Sterling's comments grabbed headlines, dominated TV news and the Internet and caused a furor within the NBA. The new commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, acted quickly, banning Sterling from the league for life, fining him $2.5 million and asking other team owners to demand that Sterling sell his team. Silver is as close to a hero as we get in this play because he is new to his job and took decisive action.
But the thing is, no one in the NBA -- owners, officials, players, coaches -- should have been surprised by Sterling's remarks. In fact, most probably weren't. He has been sued more than once for discrimination against minorities in his housing projects and paid millions of dollars to settle the cases. He was sued in 2009 for wrongful job termination on the basis of race and age by a former team general manager, Elgin Baylor. Baylor, 79, a member of the NBA Hall of Fame, said in his lawsuit that Sterling had a "vision of a Southern plantation-type structure," of instilling a "pervasive and ongoing racist attitude towards his team and that Sterling wanted the team to be "composed of 'poor black boys from the South' and a white head coach." Baylor further said his salary was frozen at $350,000 a year for six years while the white head coach, who theoretically reported to Baylor, was given a $22 million contract.
Sterling also sued one of his former mistresses for the return of gifts he gave her. His deposition includes him referring to her as a "piece of trash" and "a total freak,'' whom he called "honey." He said he calls "everybody" honey, especially women with whom he's having sex "because you can't remember her name."
That was in 2004, a time when he was running the cheapest plantation-style organization in the NBA. He wouldn't pay for good players. Nobody said or did anything about Sterling then. Not much fuss was made about Baylor's suit (from which he dropped the racism claim and which he eventually lost). The NBA -- and the media -- also apparently didn't see any problem with the bias lawsuits that Sterling settled out of court. And no one said a word about his attitude toward women. Shhh, that's just Donald being Donald.
Sterling is the classic example of something we have seen too much of lately in America, in politics and business as well as sports: the rich white guy who believes he can do as he pleases because, well, he's a rich white guy. He feels entitled to treat people as he wishes. So he can have a girlfriend 50 years his junior, of mixed racial heritage, and tell her not to hang out with black men -- because he's given her two Bentleys, a condominium, lots of cash and who knows what else. He can boast about feeding and clothing his team of talented black athletes because, after all, those are his boys out there on the court. And that's his beautiful half-black mistress at his side. I pay you. I own you.
Except that V. Stiviano was no innocent. She got her lavish gifts (Sterling's wife is suing to get them back, claiming her estranged husband was sought out and enticed). And Stiviano taped his racist remarks, though her lawyer claims she didn't release the tape to the TV show TMZ and others.
In the age of instant communication, the NBA's secret -- Donald Sterling, who owns a team composed of black athletes, is a racist -- was now public. The NBA players, many of whom are millionaires themselves, are unionized. Not exactly chattel. They talked about boycotting the league's showcase event -- the playoffs. Advertisers dropped like flies from the Clippers' account. Even the president of the United States was condemning Sterling. Suddenly, he was no longer just an embarrassment that the rest of the league could try to hide or ignore; he was a threat to the image and financial well-being of the other wealthy owners. Oh yeah, and for the record, he's a racist and virtually all our players -- who are, after all, the lure of the league -- are black. The misogyny apparently still gets a pass from the league and the press.
So, the era of complicity in the NBA regarding Donald Sterling is over. But he says he has no intention of selling his team and might challenge any such demand from other owners in court. He might have a case, but if he sells he'll make a huge profit. Stiviano says she didn't mean to harm Sterling. She is also fighting Sterling wife's demand to return his lavish gifts. Potential suitors are emerging to buy the Clippers, who are now a good team. And Clippers players and coaches are still trying to win basketball games.
More remains to be revealed in this saga. But what is abundantly and depressingly clear is the arrogance of Sterling and the license his wealth gave him to flaunt it for years. The NBA's silence for so long on him is as much an indictment of the league -- owners, officials, players, coaches --as Sterling's words and behavior are of him. Ignoring racism, hoping it will somehow go away of its own accord, never works.
As for Sterling, he apparently believed so strongly that his wealth gives him power to do and say as he pleases and make other people do as he pleases, that he didn't hide his racist feelings from Stiviano. It was second nature to him. Nor, in his arrogance, did he suspect that she might try to set him up by taping their private conversation. Which in the end may go to prove that there's still no fool like an old fool. Rich white guy or not.