Why Did It Take Obama and NBA So Long to Take a Stand Against Donald Sterling's Outrageous Racism?
As riots exploded across America in early April 1968 in the immediate wake of Rev Martin Luther King's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson went on a Capitol Hill offensive to pass a law he hoped would, in part, quell some of the violence and best honor the man just slain. A day after King was buried, the Fair Housing Act was passed.
And in the nearly half-century since the enactment of that bedrock piece of civil rights legislation, which outlawed housing discrimination, there hasn't been a greater offender of it, perhaps, than longtime NBA owner Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Yet it was just this Saturday that there arose a hue and cry for the NBA to act against Sterling. It came in reaction to an audio recording allegedly of Sterling, who is white, telling his mixed-race girlfriend not to bring black people to his team's games.
Decades of racist policy renting housing in Los Angeles, which turnedSterling into a real-estate mogul wealthy enough to buy and run a professional sports team, didn't elicit any such furor. But decades of lousy Clippers basketball under Sterling's stewardship turned the Clippers into the butt of late-night TV jokes. The Clippers were laughed at for losing, laughed at for being cheap, laughed at for moving in with the star-studded Lakers, laughed at for being a second-class franchise in a first-class sports league.
But all those years, not enough people looked at Donald Sterling as the racist landlord the law so bore him out to be.
Neither the league, nor the players, nor the sports media paid much if any attention to Sterling's agreement in 2003 to pay upwards of $5m to settle a lawsuit brought by the Housing Rights Center charging that he tried to drive non-Korean tenants out of apartments he bought in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Only a few observers noted in 2006 that the Justice Department sued Sterling for allegations of housing discrimination in the same neighborhood. The charges included statements he allegedly made to employees that black and Hispanic families were not desirable tenants.
And while a handful of us in the media excoriated Sterling and the NBA in 2009 when Sterling settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay $2.73mfollowing allegations he refused to rent apartments to Hispanics, blacks and families with children, the story didn't resonate – despite it being the largest housing discrimination settlement in Justice Department history.
There was no investigation from the NBA, like the one new commissioner Adam Silver announced under pressure this weekend,promising to move "extraordinarily quickly".
There was no condemnation from black players who predominate the league like the one that erupted Saturday and Sunday from current superstars, including LeBron James and Chris Paul, and from retired icons like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Paul, the Clippers star and head of the National Basketball Players Association, joined his teammates Sunday in stripping their warm-up gear and throwing it unceremoniously into a pile in a demonstration to disown the team's nickname in protest of their owner's loathsomeness.
And there was certainly no President Barack Obama to denounce Sterling, as he did Sunday. The comments with which the owner had been charged with spewing, the president said, showed how "the United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation."
But pro sports have their own legacy of ignorance as bliss.
The sudden Sterling backlash exposed a mythology that we've allowed to grow in sport's billion-dollar commercial industrialization: sport leads social change. In many cases, however, such as the blind eye cast to racial discrimination of prodigious proportion, sport is a laggard in social reform, its leaders tacit supporters – if not propagators – of unethical and immoral behavior.
Indeed, the NBA front office and its member owners continued to embrace Sterling, and players – black and white – continued to accept offers to play for him without condition. Paul, so apoplectic about Sterling now, jumped to autograph a five-year, $107m contract exactly one minute after the midnight free agent signing period opened last summer. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who Sunday said he was uncertain about returning to the team next season in the wake of the newest unsavory report about Sterling, moved from Boston to Los Angeles last summer to accept Sterling's $21m offer to coach the Clippers.
That is the norm.
Instances wherein pro-sports participants have taken a stand against social intransigence, like the walkout of the 1965 American Football League All-Star Game by black players angered that they were denied rooms and board in the host city New Orleans, are few. It took Major League Baseball years before it ousted Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who became infamous for spewing barbs about black players and homosexuals and marveling at Hitler. And while the majority of American society became accepting of gay people in recent years, it wasn't until the past year that an active gay pro basketball player and would-be gay National Football League player felt comfortable enough to declare their sexuality in public.
It was an overdue reckoning this weekend when so many voices started calling for the NBA to sanction or oust Donald Sterling. Ironically, he was only able to become one of the league's owners due to the wealth he amassed – wealth amassed in part by refusing to lease land to people who look like most of the players in the NBA. As such, he should've been treated like a pariah years ago. But he wasn't rebuked, or worse, way back when – and that should be the biggest outrage of all.