Dealing with racists like Sterling: Better late than never, NBA

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 30, 2014 

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver earned himself a nickname Tuesday.

“Hi-Yo” Silver.

To the tune of the “William Tell Overture,” the Lone Ranger was introduced on black-and-white TV screens during the 1950s riding a “fiery horse,” as the narrator put it, “with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver.”

Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Adam Silver moved with the speed of light — and created a cloud of dust — in punishing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Three days after Sterling was heard making racist remarks on a tape recording, Silver revealed himself as a doddering fool’s worst nightmare.

He issued Sterling a lifetime ban from the league and a $2.5 million fine, and then vowed to achieve the owners’ approval in forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers.

“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver said at a press conference. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic league.”

How committed is the NBA to the principle of inclusion?

This committed: Since 1981, it had allowed an unapologetic bigot to sit at courtside for games, hire and fire team executives, browbeat players and participate in league meetings.

When former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor accused Sterling of age and race discrimination in a 2009 lawsuit that noted the owner’s “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” within a “Southern plantation-like structure,” the NBA looked the other way.

When the U.S. Department of Justice sued Sterling for driving minority families out of the apartments he leased — in addition to owning a basketball franchise long known for its organizational incompetence, Sterling was a slumlord — the NBA chose to ignore it.

Using skin color to judge whether a person is a worthy rental tenant, it seems to me, violates any definition of “inclusion and respect.” But even after Sterling was forced to pay $2.7 million in a settlement with the Justice Department, the NBA figured the storm would pass.

Tolerance for Sterling’s act extended to the players. An ESPN The Magazine article, published June 1, 2009, revealed Sterling as a wheels-off-the-tracks madman whose rants made the tape recording released Saturday sound like he was planning to reorganize the “Up With People” tour.

And yet Mark Jackson, whose 18-year career as an NBA guard included two seasons spent with the Clippers, told ESPN the Magazine’s Peter Keating that he “never had a problem” with Sterling.


What about the lawsuit that depicted Sterling’s discriminatory rental policies toward blacks and Hispanics?

“I heard about the housing case,” Jackson said. “What can I do about that?”

Jackson was working as an ESPN analyst when he shrugged his shoulders about Sterling in 2009. Five years later, upon hearing tape-recorded words so repulsive they cost the Clippers many corporate sponsors within 48 hours, Jackson found a more convenient opportunity to vent outrage.

He suggested fans boycott the Tuesday night playoff game in Los Angeles between the Clippers and Golden State Warriors.

“If it was me, I wouldn’t come to the game,” Jackson said Monday. “I believe as fans, the loudest statement they could make is not show up for the game.”

Mark Jackson, I should point out, no longer is employed at ESPN. He’s head coach of the Golden State Warriors and — connecting some dots here — a likely beneficiary of an arena full of empty seats.

As for Donald Sterling, few words can describe him better than as an “oxymoron,” with the emphasis on the “moron.” He’s destined to be remembered as a billionaire wretch, a man of wealth and taste who spent his final years in seclusion, the poorest house of all.

But the NBA knew about Sterling’s appalling behavior for decades, and it reacted only when the tape recording obtained by TMZ — probably illegally and, without question, unethically — soured the Clippers’ association with their corporate sponsors.

“I can’t speak to past actions,” Silver said Tuesday, “other than to say that when specific evidence was brought to the NBA, we acted.”

The league acted swiftly, to be sure.

It took but three days to conclude Donald Sterling’s 33-year reign of hate was bad for business.

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