Donald Sterling Racist Remarks: What Can the NBA Community Do In Response?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The NBA airwaves are exploding with righteous indignation about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist views. How does prejudice work among us and what concrete actions might the NBA community take to address the damage Sterling has caused?

The NBA world is exploding today with news about the latest revelation of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist tendencies. With reaction flooding the floor (and appropriately so) it seems we need to look for some order, some definitive direction amid the mess.  I'd like to talk about what we, the NBA community, can do in response to Sterling and his views.

Three caveats precede this discussion:

1.  As always when talking about matters of discrimination, I do not claim to be an expert.  I hope that my words do not invalidate anyone else's experience, as that is not my intent.  I also realize that things that we don't intend often happen anyway.  Should that occur, I offer an unconditional apology.  I may not know what I'm speaking of.  To the extent I need correcting, please do so.  I'll listen.

2.  There's no doubt in my mind that Sterling is a racist-as-anything, misogynistic-as-anything, horrible example of conduct in human society.  Tom Ziller at SBNation links up his history of remarks and actions.  It reads like a how-to manual in ignorance.  The only self-reflective qualm I have in this whole thing is whether we'd be reacting the same way today if Sterling's conversation involved the misogynistic side of the ledger instead of the racial side.  My guess is we'd be dismissing it as rich guy's privilege, which says something about us.  But that's a conversation for another day.  Nothing herein should be construed as letting Sterling off the hook even a centimeter, let alone defending his reprehensible world view.

3.  Please read completely and carefully, not lifting arguments out of context.  Keep in mind that the focus of this piece is us, what we can do.  Walk with me until we get to that point.  If I'm arguing that certain responses aren't adequate, that doesn't mean I believe Sterling shouldn't be responded to.

To understand what we can do in response to Donald Sterling being a racist-as-heck jerk, we need to break down some of the expressions of racism and our responses to it.  These categories aren't hard and fast, just helpful in this situation.

Personal, Internal Racism

People are entitled to their own world-view, as screwed up as it may be.  As nice of a dream as it is, we cannot delve into each other's brains and correct objectionable thoughts.  If Donald Sterling wants to rehearse a prejudice-filled internal monologue every moment of every day, he gets to do that.  As long as he conducts his business the same, allows equal access in his public dealings, and doesn't demonstrate discriminatory hiring practices or other illegal activities, his worldview ends up influencing little but himself.  Sterling may experience moral and social outrage about cutting a check to an African-American man.  He may cringe when one of "them" (as he puts it) sits in the front row at a Clippers game.  But if he shuts up, signs that check, and sells the ticket, this discussion is done.  His moral outrage has no power except to ruin his own damn life.

It's important to realize that just as Sterling's own internal monologue remains relatively powerless unless backed up by actions, our own internal moral outrage upon discovering his monologue remains relatively powerless unless backed up by actions.  Gasping in shock, bemoaning Sterling's words on Twitter, shaking our heads and saying, "Can you believe this guy?" aren't adequate responses.  We're countering somebody else's morality with our own without really touching the mechanisms that translate morality into power, prejudice into racism, good intentions into justice.

Obviously having an internal monologue made public adds to its power and effect, as has happened here.  Few people would be surprised to hear Sterling is a jerk.  Having his views blasted across the country damages us more than our implicit knowledge of his prejudice did.  Raising our own voices to say, "His views are wrong!" provides important counterpoint.  But lifting our voices does not undo that damage, nor does it prevent that damage from spreading farther through Sterling's actions should he remain in power.

Our personal, internal shock--even when given voice at full volume--does not overcome Sterling's racism.  It's a first step, but not enough.  If we get upset, blast out a Tweet, and go back to our lives while he plugs his ears and the NBA looks the other way, 6 months from now we're not angry anymore, he's still an NBA owner with a now-public message of revulsion for minorities, and nothing has changed except the increased harm his views cause by virtue of going un-addressed any any lasting form.

If the entire internet gathers at a lawn to scream, "Look!  There's a weed!" but nobody pulls the weed, that weed's going to be bigger in six months while the protests of the people have evaporated into thin air.  Those people may still hate weeds.  Weeds may win "most pressing problem in the world" on an internet poll.  Weed don't care.  It just keeps growing.

Legal, Actionable Discrimination

Another level of response arises if Sterling can be linked to illegal discriminatory practices.  Unfortunately a leaked tape of your objections to the company your mistress keeps doesn't rise to that level.  Even if someone could determine damages deserving legal retribution, they'd likely have to wrangle over whether the tape itself was admissible.

The only action I could envision (though again I'm not an expert) would be the Player's Union arguing that this creates a hostile workplace environment, perhaps linking the tape to other material to prove a pattern of hostility.  Even then, that's probably a stretch given the thin thread of the recording that prompted it.

I've seen suggestions that all this can be handled through the legal system, that somehow Sterling would get his comeuppance...implying again that all we have to do is point at the weed and somebody else will do the dirty work...this time a professional gardener.  That's probably not going to happen, or at least not effectively.  This response, too, is inadequate.

Power of the Vote

Though we cannot change Sterling's mind nor find immediate legal recourse, there remains a third time-tested response to injustice: the power of the vote.  This echoes the first response--expression of outrage--but backs it up with action, pressure placed on the correct points in effective measure.

If Sterling were a U.S. Senator instead of filthy rich NBA owner, this would already be happening.  In politics the power of the vote is explicit.  Losing public approval in a shocking manner has grave consequences.  After this weekend's hubbub and the national castigation, Senator Sterling would be resigning on Monday morning.

Things are not so tidy in the business world.  Money becomes the de facto vote.  Recognizing this, several folks today have come up with, "Clippers fans should not show up," or, "I wonder if Billy Crystal will give up his season tickets?" or, "The Clippers players should refuse to play their next game in protest."

While these suggestions trade on the power of the vote, they're insufficient for a couple of reasons:

1.  Aren't we all saying we're up in arms about this, from the lowliest Twitter hack to the crew of Inside the NBA on TNT?  Then why are the Clippers players and fans singled out as the action-takers while the rest of us go about our daily lives with our fandom and relationship to the NBA community untouched?

2.  No matter what you do to Donald Sterling, he won't be removing himself.  Target protests at him all the day long.  He has the money and position to wait you out.  NBA bylaws say the only folks with the authority to oust him are his fellow owners. Any action which doesn't touch them is a wasted action.

Here's a hint about NBA owners.  As outraged as they may be personally, they're also quite rich, quite invested in the NBA as a business, most are quite insulated from the effects of racism, and it's in their best interest for all of this to go away as quickly as possible so we can re-focus on their product.  They're not bad people.  I doubt many of them hold Sterling's world view.  They probably find it as disgusting as your average fan does.  But the owner has far more at stake, far less incentive to view this situation from the perspective of racial justice alone.

That's a ton of inertia to overcome.  Isolated protests against Sterling will not move the stone.  Besides, once again it becomes a high-falutin' way of expecting other people to act instead of contributing to the solution ourselves.  It'd be effective if it worked, but waiting for others to enact justice usually means more waiting than enacting.

If we are really up in arms about this, if we find this as reprehensible as we say, the entire NBA community needs to react to Sterling with more than just pious words, shock, and the implication that someone, somewhere should do something about it.  WE should do something about it if it matters as much as everyone is saying.

What can we do?

First and foremost we can make clear that Donald Sterling being removed as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers is the only outcome we, as NBA fans, will accept.  This hasn't been an isolated incident.  It's time for this sordid saga to end.  Anything less is going to create problems that no amount of dialogue will resolve...pain to millions that no number of zeroes on check to a few will ameliorate.

We can also empathize, for now, that removing Sterling is complicated process that will not happen overnight.  Suggestions to boycott the playoffs or for the Clippers (better: all teams) to forfeit games are out of place.  The league couldn't remove Sterling that quickly if it wanted to.  But we need to see that process started and given due diligence as the months progress.

We should not be ignorant of the temptation to make all of this go away, however.  We should not accept, "We're looking into it" without anything moving.  Owners will be tempted to make this disappear quietly.  The Commissioner will be tempted.  The short-cycle news networks will be tempted.  The majority of fans will be tempted.  We have to show that we're not willing to let temptation win the day.

Though skipping playoff games isn't realistic for fans or players, using the opportunity those games afford to keep this issue in the public eye (and thus in the minds of the decision-making owners) is more than fair game.

Fans everywhere--not just Clippers fans, but in every arena--should be augmenting their usual homemade signage with "Fire Sterling" or "I Don't Agree With Sterling" or "Sterling Ruins the NBA" placards.  If you don't usually bring a sign, maybe this would be the time to start.  This matter should remain a part of our public discussion, not just this weekend, but two and three and five weekends from now.

Players should not feel compelled to forfeit a season worth of work and a lifetime-opportunity for a title because of one man's words.  But players and coaches across the league could agree to take the floor 15 minutes late for each playoff game in protest of Sterling's words.  If they want to make a more powerful protest, take the floor for the tip but then have all players sit down right there on the floor for 15 minutes before rising to play...an old-style sit-in, a visible sign of the diversity and determination of the NBA community.  The games would still go on.  They couldn't forfeit everyone.  But this would mess up television schedules, leave a quarter-hour of air time for announcers to talk about the reason for the protest, and keep the issue public without destroying the process.  Few fans would be upset.  The corporation decision-makers--networks and the guys who need their television relationships to run smoothly in anticipation of that next, big TV deal--would be the only ones getting nervous.  Oddly enough, those are also the people with the most power to affect Sterling's future.

Without this kind of voting action--not the empty Facebook threats of canceling games and season tickets en masse, not calls for other people to do something, but actual resistance from within the community as a message to its leaders--all of our protestations go for naught.

tl;dr?  If we think this is wrong, we should do something about that wrong, each in the particular way we can.  Fans need to voice their protest during the games, at the venues.  Players need to disrupt the flow of the events and make people reflect.  Owners need to convene and decide that Sterling's attitude has no place in their business.  And Donald Sterling needs to be out of the NBA for good.

Update: Ben has an excellent wrap-up of Commissioner Adam Silver's press conference and league-wide reaction here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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