The NBA’s Sterling/Silver Problem

Today’s special guest is Jeff Bayer, a Portland-based (soon to be San Diego-based) film critic who also happens to know a lot about sports. He is the co-host of Movie B.S. with Bayer and Snider, the only movie podcast on the Internet. In his spare time, he enjoys being tall, and beating you in hypothetical one-on-one basketball games. 

A person many people have long called racist has now made racist comments that have become public. Actions normally speak louder than words, but in this case, words have spoken louder than the previous public actions of Donald Sterling.

TMZ released an audiotape involving Sterling and his former girlfriend, V. Stiviano, and now racism is the new focus of the most exciting first round of the NBA Playoffs I can remember.

I can’t stop thinking about it, the media doesn’t want me to stop thinking about it, and now I’m joining the conversation by writing about it. The audiotape has Sterling purportedly (everyone’s new favorite word) making racist remarks. Any logical human being would classify the statements as racist, and would most likely add an adjective or two, such as “completely,” “incredibly,” or “insanely.” If it is Sterling on the tapes (and we have to keep saying that until it’s proven) then he is racist. But didn’t we already know this?

Bill Simmons of Grantland says he wasn’t surprised, and he’s written about the disgust he feels toward Sterling in the past. An article by J.A. Adande is literally titled “Donald Sterling: No Surprise”. If you follow the NBA, you know Sterling is a billionaire who hasn’t historically run the Clippers with the goal of contending for a title, and you also know he’s reportedly done terrible things to minorities.

What I’m curious about is this: what is suddenly unacceptable here? If it has already been determined in the court of public opinion that Sterling is racist, shouldn’t people already be outraged that he owns an NBA franchise? The difference here is that people can no longer hide their outrage. People in power are now forced into opinion and action.

We want our analysts, sideline reporters, players, coaches, the entire Clippers organization, and even the President of the United States to have an opinion about Sterling’s purported comments. It goes beyond that. If you’ve watched NBA playoff coverage, you’ve seen that everyone who graces the screen is being prompted to say what they would do if they were NBA commissioner Adam Silver. They also have to comment on the comments of others. Do you agree with the comments others have made expressing dislike of racist comments purportedly made by Sterling? Not surprisingly, the consensus is “yes.” The only talking head that broke from the script was Jalen Rose. He said that based on the purported comments, he would not have played in Game 4 of the Clippers vs. Warriors. Think about that. Think about the immediate action that would have taken place if the Clippers refused to play for a Sterling-owned team. Games would have stopped. Action would have been taken.

During one segment on Saturday, NBA TV lamented the fact that the incident has deflected attention from the hard work of the players and coaches. They then went to a Twitter board to get people’s opinions on the situation. Yes, clearly they feel it’s unfortunate.

NBPA Special Assistant, former player, and mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson said, “[NBA players] want swift and decisive action, and they want Adam [Silver] to be extreme and to do the maximum, [to levy] whatever sanctions are allowed based on the bylaws of the constitution.” Did you understand what he wanted? He was talking business, and that’s the problem. This is a social issue, which has to become a business decision for everyone, even the fans.

What is the outcome? What should the penalty be for being racist? Let me correct that: what should be the penalty for being really racist when you don’t know you’re being recorded? On “NBA Countdown,” Magic Johnson said Sterling should be suspended one year, and that he won’t attend another Clippers game while Sterling is in charge. Do fans, players, and potential free agents merely forgive and forget after one year? I don’t know what a one-year suspension means for the owner of an NBA team. Are they saying “keep writing checks, but don’t hang out with us?” A rich guy can’t sit in his luxury suite for a year? Big deal.

Adam Silver and all of the NBA owners need to say something like this to Sterling: “we don’t like you. In fact, we’re disgusted with you, and we don’t want to play with you anymore.”

It’s an easy decision: Silver must use his power as commissioner to get Sterling out of the league. This means the NBA’s lawyers battle Sterling’s lawyers until Sterling makes a huge profit from selling the Clippers. He purchased them for $12.5 million in 1981. The Milwaukee Bucks just sold for $550 million, and the Clippers are worth much more than a terrible team in a small, cold, and economically depressed city. Again, this is all business. It’s not social justice. The only reason for the commissioner and NBA owners to get Sterling out of the league is that he affects business. Perhaps people won’t go to Clippers games, or they’ll burn Clippers jerseys. This is bad for the image of the league, and that causes action. Hopefully some action will ring louder than Sterling’s purported words. Hopefully.

The truly amazing twist would be if the voice on the audiotape isn’t Sterling. Everyone assumes it is. Everyone. If it’s not, then a man whom many consider racist isn’t as bad as they thought. But they’ll still think he’s bad. And racists everywhere won’t change their hideous personal beliefs; they’ll just double check for cameras and smartphone recording apps, especially if they’re super rich and have reputations to maintain. Sterling’s words are disgusting, but his actions have been worse, and have caused much more damage and pain to individuals.

The take-away from all of this is that a predominantly African-American league will not tolerate racist comments (said in public or supposed privacy), but is all too willing to overlook racist actions. Will that result in much of a lesson for Donald Sterling? He won’t learn to treat people any differently, but he’ll make plenty of money in the process.