Former Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Monday said the comments made by ousted Clippers owner Donald Sterling needed to be viewed within a broader perspective of how America faces racism.
Irvin and Abdul-Jabbar spoke at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual meeting in Dallas.
The NBA has banned Sterling from the league and ordered a sale of the Clippers after a recording surfaced on which he made derogatory statements about blacks.
A discussion that began with Sterling's taped comments moved quickly to other places where sports and race have intersected, from the debate over the Washington Redskins' name to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban describing his own prejudices shortly after Sterling's comments became public.
Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion and the NBA's all-time leading scorer, called Sterling a "racist clown," but added that he had seen sports unite people of different races and believes they still can.
"White Americans did not ever see a black American as having any value, especially heroic value, until Joe Louis beats up Max Schmeling," Abdul-Jabbar said, referring to Louis' famous 1938 knockout. "They liked that. That was pretty good. And all of a sudden they looked upon black Americans in a different way."
Irvin, the star wide receiver on three Cowboys Super Bowl teams, said America still faced "the remnants of the Donald Sterlings," but to focus on those remnants would miss a larger point.
"I've seen African-Americans who cried because they didn't think it would be possible in their lifetime of having an African-American president, and that happened in a little over 40 years," Irvin said. "And we (can be) focused on this one dude Donald Sterling all we want, or we can be smart enough and focus on what we all accomplished when we came together as one."
Irvin said he empathized with Cuban, who described how he would consider crossing the street if he saw a black man wearing a hoodie or a white person with tattoos.
Irvin chuckled as he described his concern if he encountered a man wearing a hoodie in the Texas heat.
"That doesn't mean I'm racist, but I'm worried," he said.
Former CNN analyst Roland Martin said someone needed to ask Cuban and others why they felt the way they did.
"A lot of whites who really want to talk about their personal feelings are afraid to actually say it for being called a racist, and you have to create the environment where people can be honest about how they feel," Martin said.
Sacramento mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is president of the conference. Johnson worked with current and former players immediately after TMZ published a tape of Sterling making his comments about blacks, including former NBA star Magic Johnson.
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