Donald Sterling’s most recent actions are absolutely appalling, so blatantly racist and harmful as to make one wonder if they’re reading them in 2014 or 100 years prior. They are an especially dark mark on the soiled history of Donald Sterling’s professional career, which has included numerous federal charges of civil rights violations, racial discrimination in his business dealings and an abundance of sexual harassment lawsuits from his former employees. And yet, they are still largely representative actions in a sports culture that, as much as we’d like to believe serves as a haven from racism some 70 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, still lives and breathes as a vital organ in a largely racist world.
Yes, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver most certainly did all the right things. Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA, $2.5 million fine (which will be donated to anti-discrimination and tolerance organizations) and Silver’s push to force Sterling to sell the Clippers following TMZ’s release of an audio recording of Sterling’s racist and hateful comments all rang true as very appropriate responses to the situation at hand. Many dubbed this event Silver’s first major test as NBA Commissioner, and in that regard, he has passed. He made no attempt to hide his anger and disdain for Sterling’s actions, and his response has been warmly embraced by many of the same faces that were outraged over Sterling’s initial comments, including that of former NBA star Magic Johnson, who took to Twitter, saying, “Commissioner Silver showed great leadership in banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life … Former and current NBA players are very happy and satisfied with Commissioner Silver’s ruling.”
But once we push past all that, once we ignore the bigotry that a man like Sterling displayed in making comments like that to his mixed-race girlfriend, once we push beyond comments from Kobe saying he wouldn’t play for Sterling, Clippers coach Doc Rivers saying the situation mostly bothered him because it distracted him and his team from focusing on basketball and harsh words from LeBron saying there was no room for Sterlings in the NBA, we realize Sterling’s comments are just a ten-minute snapshot into the eyes of a much, much larger problem.
Racism is prevalent in sports. The NBA is 80 percent black (which many argue makes Sterling’s actions all the more deplorable), and yet there is only one majority black owner of an NBA franchise. The MLB has dropped to being less than ten percent black, just a decade ago, the NFL had to instate the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs, while in the NHL, bananas were thrown at Wayne Simmonds when he skated on the ice at Philadelphia. Only five African Americans represented the U.S. at the Sochi Olympics, only two minority head coaches and two black quarterbacks have ever taken home a Super Bowl win, despite the NFL fast approaching its 100th birthday, only 13 percent of the athletic directors in the NCAA are of color and only one black person made Sports Illustrated’s “Top 40 Most Powerful People in Sports” list. There are, quite simply, no minority counterparts for the white males in power across the sporting world.
When Adam Silver made his final decision on the matter at hand, he made a statement. He made a statement that the NBA will not publicly allow such horrible statements to come from so high within the organization. And that’s a start. But what about what’s privately said? What about the feelings and opinions that boil inside millions of sports fans across the world as Sterling’s case unfolded itself? Silver cannot police that, and he cannot police what we say or feel as a public. That is our job to mediate.
The brutal truth is that Sterling has company across the league; they just aren’t as vocal and as stupid as Sterling was when he made his comments in the stands at the Staples Center. He has for a long time and will continue to have such support until something drastic is done. When Jalen Rose said, “This is a league issue, not a Clippers issue,” he’s right. But the problem extends far beyond even the NBA. It’s hardly even about sports at a certain point, but sports have become so tied up in issues of status, of sexual preference, of race that the topics are nearly inseparable. And while as much as this particular issue is focused on Sterling himself, if we take a step back, it’s really about the world as a whole, and what we continue to accept and implicitly endorse as a part of our everyday lives.