Former NBA great Elgin Baylor got it exactly right when he charged that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling viewed his team as a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure.” Baylor’s lawsuit was filed on the grounds that he had been wrongfully terminated from his job as general manager because of his age and race.
Even though Baylor later dropped the race accusation, a jury ruled in favor of Sterling three years ago. It was a red flag, and it should have been a warning for the NBA.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also got it exactly right. Tuesday afternoon at a press conference, he announced that Sterling, the longest owner of any of the 30 NBA franchises, has been banned from the game for life for the racist remarks he made in a taped conversation with an ex-girlfriend. In the tape that was released to two websites, Sterling chastised her for associating with “Black people” and was particularly outraged by a photo of her with Magic Johnson.
Sterling, Silver said, will also be fined $2.5 million, restricted from any role in the operations of the team he has owned since 1981 and will not be allowed to serve as one of the league’s governors. Moreover, he said, he will urge the NBA Board of Governors to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team and that he “will do everything in my power to ensure that that happens.” Again, exactly right.
The fine levied on the tarnished Sterling will be donated to organizations dedicated to anti-discrimination and tolerance efforts, a divvying process to be decided by the NBA and its Players Association, Silver said.
Silver concluded that the NBA is far bigger than any one owner, any one coach, any one player, and let us hope that slam dunk decision will reach beyond the arenas and all the way to Nevada, where Cliven Bundy has much in common with Sterling with his comments that Black people need to be back picking cotton.
The plantation metaphor may be applicable in one way, but when Silver invoked the names of Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton— three men who broke the color barrier in the NBA—that distant past has the urgency of now with the power possessed by Chris Paul of the Players Association, LeBron James and even Michael Jordan, who tends to be mute when it comes to political issues, and gives a new meaning to the plantation and who’s on it.
The Sterlings and Bundys and others of their imbecilic ilk (and let us hope we’re not impugning the mentally disabled with this comparison) are symptoms of a continuing racism that is manifested in so many pernicious ways. Yes, we can take umbrage at their ignorance, but what about the daily micro-slights, the annoying indignities that Black Americans have to constantly endure?
We feel it each time our leaders are ridiculed and insulted, as when Ted Nugent slurred President Barack Obama, saying he was a “subhuman mongrel.” We recoil with rage to hear another troubling setback from the Supreme Court, whether it’s about civil rights we thought were ironclad, including the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which a vital provision was eviscerated, or the more recent ruling that has eliminated the use of race as a factor for entry into the realm of higher education—banning affirmative action in the same way Silver has banished Sterling.
Even as we write this, there is disturbing news from Hempstead, N.Y., where a Black worker there was personally humiliated when the picture of a chimpanzee was posted on the bulletin board, suggesting a kinship, and that is similar to the photo that appeared on the front page of a Belgium newspaper last month depicting Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as apes.
The NBA, which has known of Sterling’s behavior, to say nothing of the lawsuits for housing discrimination against people of color—a settlement that cost him millions of dollars—basically turned its head on this issue because the Clippers were hardly a marquee team, under the radar for more than a quarter of a century.
Racism, like violence, is an inescapable part of the American dilemma, and it’s hard to tell where it will suddenly appear to make life difficult for us.
While we can live with the Bundys and their stupidity, and the disrespect that is becoming increasingly malevolent from our body politic, it is intolerable when that racism embodies an institutional form, thereby limiting our life opportunities.
That’s why it’s good to see that at least, and at last, the NBA has taken action, and one route to the plantation is closed. Sadly, there are so many more, and it means we have to be ever vigilant and hope for allies in high places.