Donald Sterling’s fall one small victory in the USA’s long war against racism

NBA act swiftly to ensure Los Angeles Clippers owner’s attitudes don’t tarnish the sport of basketball

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The NBA banned Sterling for life for “deeply offensive and harmful” racist comments that sparked a national firestorm in the USA. Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The NBA banned Sterling for life for “deeply offensive and harmful” racist comments that sparked a national firestorm in the USA. Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty


It is an inherently American tradition: no sooner has the confetti begun to rain down on the varnished floors after the NBA finals or blow across the frozen turf of a Superbowl stadium in January than the owner of the winning club begins to make his way to the podium to accept the trophy.

It doesn’t matter how many yards the revered quarterback has thrown or how many fourth quarter points the go-to player has made over the course of a gruelling seven-game NBA finals series: come the prize-giving, stars and coaches accept their roles as ensemble cast members and the owner take the spotlight. In America, the owner is king.

There is something ridiculous and even pitiful about the sight of the limitlessly rich, sometimes ancient and almost always white owners standing there surrounded by ‘his’ team as he accepts the trophy and the glory. And it is also an unerring reflection of the hierarchical structure within any elite professional sports team: the owner is the ultimate star.

In his 30 years of ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise, Donald Sterling never seemed to harbour much ambition to lift trophies or hang banners from the stadium venue. Sterling was, until the lifetime ban he received this week for racist remarks, one of the NBA’s last intransigents; a hulking figure who sat grouchily at mid-court through losing season after losing season, heedless to the despair of the game’s most put-upon fans.

Whatever pride Sterling took in owning a basketball club was in constant combat with his inherent miserliness. He once asked Paul Silas, coach of the Clippers during the seasons when they played in San Diego if the club really needed to play for the players’ socks. Busting contract records was not going to be his thing and for decades, Clippers fans were those Los Angeleans who were either too perverse, stubborn or broke to follow the glamorous and serially successful Lakers.

Swift expulsion
Clippers fans accepted it was their fate to have a curmudgeonly owner who would never let go of the team. Stories of Sterling’s attitude towards minority races were common knowledge in the NBA but it was the release of the audio tapes of a phone call in which he explicitly voiced his hostility towards black people that led to his swift expulsion.

On the tape he chastises the woman with whom he is conversing for posting a photograph of NBA great Magic Johnson on her Instagram account and warns her not to bring him to Clippers games. The conversation is at once banal and highly offensive, provoking instant outrage across the spectrum of US society, including Barack Obama.

The leaked tapes presented Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, with his first real crisis. The NBA is in the thick of its play-off season: there were reports on Tuesday that a team was considering boycotting that evening’s games and the Clippers’ switchboard was lit with advertisers calling to cancel slots.

Silver acted decisively, hitting Sterling with a $2.5 million fine, banning him for life from the NBA and then quickly announcing that the NBA would be pushing through a vote (of other owners) to force their disgraced colleague to sell his team. Silver and the NBA was lauded for the speed with which they smoked out an embarrassment like Sterling.

The reports and commentaries on Sterling’s downfall have been scathing and gleeful and collectively give the impression that the last American racist has been suitably shamed and disgraced. But Sterling is hardly the only American white male born in 1934 harbouring a vile attitude towards Americans of different skin colour. And his disgrace once again illuminates just how close to the surface of American life the issue of race remains.

There is something chilling about the observation made this week by William Rhoden in the New York Times. In addressing the deeper issue of race and American sport and specifically referencing the hullabaloo caused by LeBron James’s decision to leave his home club in Cleveland for Miami, Rhoden wrote: “It was as if James was a runaway.” The sentence is loaded.

Sterling’s biography has in common with the others who have accumulated the extraordinary wealth required to own a sports club the essential, recurring themes of the American Dream: wild ambition and voracious energy and luck and, then, the material rewards which seem endless.

Sterling was an attorney who got involved in property, acquired the Clippers for $12 million in 1981 – the year, incidentally, given as the date of the last known lynching of an African-American by two Ku Klux Klan members in Mobile, Alabama. Sterling got in at the perfect time: professional basketball was about to emerge from the doldrums and enjoy decades of transformation to its current state as a multi-billion dollar global industry. Whoever succeeds Sterling as the owner of the Clippers is expected to cough up $750 million to one billion dollars for the privilege.

In the last irony, Sterling had actually committed enough money to enable the Clippers front office to assemble a side capable of contending for a championship and had lured Doc Rivers, one of the NBA’s most sought-after coaches, and an African-American, from the Boston Celtics.

Two of the most prominent African-Americans of the last 30 years, Oprah Winfrey and (the very person whom Sterling disparaged) Magic Johnson, are reported to be interested in acquiring the club. The vast majority of owners in the NBA – and the other two major American sports – are white.

The racial profile of coaches in the NBA has, in recent years, shifted dramatically from the stereotypical man on the sideline: silver-haired, patriarchal and white. But the racial roles are still clearly defined.

NBA teams are dominated by African-American players , many of whom escaped a life of limited opportunity only because of their great talent with a basketball. They are gods in the impoverished quarters of the cities in which they play but scan the crowd profile in the arenas – where cheap seat tickets go for many hundreds at this time of the season – and it is mostly white.

Scan the crowd in Madison Square Garden or the American Airlines Arena in Miami or the Staples Centre where the Clippers and Lakers play . And if you are ever in those arenas, then scan the profile of the people serving hot dogs and beers and selling merchandise or wait until the lights dim and the cleaners come in.

Donald Sterling grew up in the decades when racism was rife and casual. He got rich and never questioned his prejudices. His exit from the NBA is like a welcome blast of fresh air on a dead day. But America’s pursuit of racial equality and of equal opportunity will continue long after the Clippers godfather has been forgotten.

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