Donald Sterling, Sports, and the Illusion of Control

If I were a betting man, I would put all twelve of my bank account’s remaining dollars on the assumption that you’ve heard about this Donald Sterling debacle. But if, by some stroke of odd happenstance you haven’t been inundated with this week’s obsession, here’s what happened in one run-on sentence:

Although Donald Sterling has been on the record as a miserable and offensively discriminatory old man for pretty much his entire life, and although he has said horrible things about women and nonwhites ever since he bought the Clippers over thirty years ago, the American public only banded together and moved to banish him from the NBA because a recording surfaced this past weekend of him imploring his assistant/girlfriend/mistress/side bitch to resist posting photos to Instagram with African American men, and now that Adam Silver has banned Sterling for life everyone is happy, except for a group of those questioning why the hell the old reptile wasn’t kicked out years ago for even more offensive and damaging behavior, such as denying housing to certain minorities.

(Deep breath)

People are right to celebrate Sterling’s banishment, because he is a despicable human and an ugly blot on what is rapidly becoming America’s pre-eminent athletic export (exsport?), the NBA. I agree with those who applaud Silver’s swift, strong action. All that said, it is hard to argue with those who ask why this all didn’t happen a long time ago. I think it all has to do with control. Who controls what, and to what end? The answer, I think we all agree when we actually think about it, can be dispiriting.

I don’t have to give you an intensive list of Donald Sterling’s atrocities, mostly because other people have already done a nice job of just that. The fact is that he has run the Clippers into the ground ever since he bought them in the early 1980s, and he has done a brilliant job of discriminating in the real estate market (This is best explained in depth here, by Bomani Jones). Despite all this, he is currently the longest-tenured owner in the league, having owned the team since Doc Rivers, their current coach, was a freshman in college. Or, if you prefer, he bought the team before every starter besides Matt Barnes was born.

Although Sterling’s antiquated views on gender and race have never been a secret, the recording this past weekend set off a firestorm, as if we as a country were shocked to hear that a man connected in some professional way to Blake Griffin could ever say such evil things. The controversy unfolded slowly at first, to the point where patrollers of the Internet were actively imploring ESPN to mention something about Sterling. On Friday, Bill Simmons asked his Facebook followers if he should mention something about the recording on NBA Countdown that night. The people spoke, overwhelmingly urging him to mention it in some way, any way. The next day brought Deadspin’s Director’s Cut of the Dirtbag Chronicles, and the inside-out-shirt protest. By Tuesday, ESPN was stretching itself thin finding anybody in Bristol who had something to say about the state of racism in America. The entire thing exploded in every media outlet imaginable. And it all culminated in Tuesday’s press conference, which saw a visibly shaky Adam Silver say big boy things, expelling the bully forevermore from his cozy front-row seats in Staples Center.

Let’s stop and consider all this for a moment. Was this a major victory for NBA fandom, the result of an enraged fan base sticking together and demanding action? Or was this all just another clear indication of the exact opposite scenario: that we as fans are powerless?

This was BY FAR the easiest story in sports to be enraged about. There was no alternative. But what prompted the change this time, I think, lies in the very reason the NBA exists. It’s why Andrew Wiggins declared for the draft without any concern for a college degree, or why Nike is the most influential shoe brand in the world, and why slimeballs like Donald Sterling wanted the team in the first place. As the maybe-future owner of the Clippers said once, it’s all about the Benjamins.

When sponsors cut ties with the Clippers in droves, and when the players vocalized their intention to sit out primetime playoff games, Adam Silver was mandated to act strongly. When serious money is on the line, and only then, leagues are forced to act. We were disgusted by Donald Sterling for years, but that disgust had no tangible financial risks tied to it. Writers such as Bomani Jones, Bill Simmons, and Peter Keating have been disseminating Sterling’s many atrocities for years, to good-sized audiences, at that, but all those articles did was stir up some distant cousin of outrage. We were appalled and disgusted by Sterling, but powerless to do anything about it.

That’s the messed up thing about sports, really. We find a lucky seat and don’t move until the rally’s over. We don’t say the pitcher is having a perfect game, for fear that those comments might have some supernatural jinxing ability. We implore the decision makers to make decisions, i.e. the decisions we would make. And yet we are grasping at straws, pretending that we make a difference but really just hoping that things unfold by chance as we would like them to.

We are paralyzed. Think about the case of the Redskins name. It’s racist, we know that. Most of us can probably agree that they should change that name to something less slurry, but what can we possibly do to effect that change? If you boycott games, somebody else will buy those seats. If you don’t buy that Alfred Morris jersey, somebody else will. Teams make most of their money nowadays through sponsors and media deals, which means they don’t care about what you do to support the team. You only mean as much as the dollars you put on the table, and unless it’s in the tens of thousands you are little more than an ineffectual whisper. When a bunch of whispers band together, something that doesn’t really happen except for in special circumstances (those of Donald Sterling), they barely resemble a roar. But when sponsors start dropping out, and when players refuse to suit up, and when those in charge actually have some palpable economic fear–only then are dramatic changes possible. Otherwise, those in charge act as they will, and that’s that.

So what happens next time we find out a person in a position of power in the sports world is a bag of scum? What happens when we consider the very nature of professional sports leagues, in that most of those in charge are white men and most of the players and stadium-level employees are not? What if we consider that the infrastructure behind the dunks, the home runs, and the interceptions breeds discrimination at an institutional level? I fear that next time won’t be so egregious as Sterling’s Old World racist rant. How can we deal with the simmering micro-racism, the subtle shades of discrimination that certainly exist but are harder to identify? I would love to give you an answer, but I just don’t know. We just have to go on silently feeling all the things we feel, and hope the executives at Coca Cola and State Farm have some kind of moral compass. Because the bottom line is that everything in the sporting world is dictated by the bottom line, and that’s not going to change any time soon.