Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Jock Talk
A not so Sterling character

Move aside O.J. Simpson, Barry Bonds, LeBron James, and Tonya Harding: We have a new Most Hated Person in Sports, and the fact that he has been able to lurk in the executive offices of major pro sports for so long is a damning indictment of the industry.

For years, the incompetence of Donald Sterling has been a running joke in the NBA. Under his ownership, the Los Angeles Clippers historically have been inept beyond parallel, year in and year out.

But incompetence is not a sin. What is a sin is that this is a man who has consistently and unapologetically exhibited racism in his dealings with his employees and his tenants, and yet his viewpoint and his continued presence have been tolerated and covered up by his fellow owners for decades.

Until now.

Until a disgruntled ex-girlfriend reportedly sold a surreptitious recording for a half-million dollars that has the Clippers owner berating her for having pictures of herself with Magic Johnson and Matt Kemp posted online, and for walking into his team games with them and other people of color.

Oh, Sterling has been successfully sued (spectacularly so) for his racist practices in the past, but he was allowed to continue to troll the NBA until TMZ, that bastion of modern journalism excellence, aired his dirty linen for the world during the midst of the playoff series between the Clippers and our own Golden State Warriors.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million.

How appropriate it was for the Clippers players to show up at their game Sunday, just hours after TMZ's report, with their warm-up jerseys worn inside out. Hearing or reading Sterling's pathetic, racist rants is enough to turn the entire league inside out as well as the emotions of anyone with a smidgeon of compassion.

In the immediate aftermath, individuals and institutions are scrambling to respond to the scandal. Everyone from Johnson and Charles Barkley to Barack Obama and Sterling's estranged wife have condemned the owner's comments. Billionaires across the country phoned in offers to buy the team, which will certainly be pried from Sterling's boney grasp. The NAACP, which had been set to honor Sterling later this month with an award, swiftly rescinded it but said it sure could have a bundle of forgiveness if Sterling would cough up a major wad of payola – I mean, make a community donation.

But is any of this enough or even really on point?

In short, no.

Across the board, the major pro sports leagues in this country have made tremendous strides in the past year in cutting down on racism and other hateful actions and words by their coaches, athletes, and fans. They've held awareness workshops, passed non-discrimination policies, and made public service announcements. Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's number.

But policies are only as good as the intentions of the people who enforce them, and you really have to wonder how dedicated the leagues are to policing team owners.

People remember when the late Marge Schott was suspended from ownership of the Cincinnati Reds in 1993 for allegations made by one of her employees of racist comments, actions and attitudes toward Jews, blacks, gays, and Asians.

But what people forget is what the Oakland Tribune reported at the same time: that Major League Baseball did not investigate or respond to the allegation of Oakland A's executive Sharon Jones that Schott had made racist remarks during a conference call with other team front offices and not a single executive protested or acted as though the comments were anything out of the ordinary. Among the comments Jones reported Schott as saying was, "I would never hire another nigger. I'd rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger."

In other words, racist comments in executive discussions were as commonplace as the racist language Dolphins player Ritchie Incognito texted and bellowed at teammate Jonathan Martin every day at practice.

You don't have to go back to the "gentlemen's agreement" that kept African American players out of MLB play to know that, as Sterling indicated in his bumbling and befuddled way, many pro team owners continue to exist and operate in a racist "culture." You don't have to wonder why for years NFL owners would not draft black quarterbacks (of if they did, moved them to a different position) or hire black head coaches.

So pardon me if the NBA's expressed outrage at learning of Sterling's comments strikes me as being rather like Captain Renault telling us that he is "shocked, shocked to learn that there is gambling in this establishment."

There is racism and it is allowed to fester because no one is ferreting it out. Pro sports are based on institutionalized power differentials between athletes and ownership in which the rights of the athletes to control where they work and for how much are severely restricted until they have accumulated enough debilitating injuries to be washed up. Greed provides plenty of motivation to live in denial of concussions and other brain damage because, really, they're just jocks.

The Positive Coaching Alliance responded to the Sterling incident by saying, "We at PCA deplore the comments. Yet we encourage coaches and parents to discuss the controversy with youth athletes. This is a remarkable opportunity for dialogue around race and sports in our country. From such hurtful language can come a great deal of healing."