NBA, Sterling controversy: A few words of proportion and self-preservation

Let’s stipulate that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is an Arrogant, Boorish, Crude, Despicable, Egregious, Foul-mouthed, Gross, Harsh, Ignorant, Jejune, Knuckleheaded, Loathsome, Mean, Nasty, Oafish, Pernicious, Quisquilious, Racist, Sexist, Tyrannical, Ugly, Vile, Warped, Xenophobic, Yellow-bellied Zero.

Let’s also agree with the punishment meted out to Sterling by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

If anything, it was too light. A $2.5 million dollar fine to a guy worth close to $2 billion dollars is pocket lint, and a lifetime suspension for an obviously decrepit eighty-year-old is probably a short sentence.


Having displayed the requisite amount of right-thinking moral indignation, I would like to say a few words in favor of proportion and self-preservation.

Proportion first. Donald Sterling has a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP and was slated to receive another one this year. Two awards for racial tolerance. OK, the NAACP sells awards to some sleazy people.

Big deal. Take a look at some of the honorary doctorates being handed out to donors by prestigious universities.

On the other hand, even the NAACP doesn’t give awards to the head of the Beverly Hills Klan.

Twice Sterling has been sued for discriminatory rental practices against minorities. The cases settled out of court, but he is still a slumlord.

Fine. But what about Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, a former NBA all-star and the adviser to the National Basketball Players Association?

He blasted Sterling’s character the other day, and rightly so. The thing is, just about the time the feds took Sterling to court, they also filed suit against Johnson for misusing government funds in a school he ran for minority kids. Johnson settled, just like Sterling (but for a lot less money).

And the Sacramento Bee reported Johnson’s real estate company owned 37 inner-city properties, more than half of which were guilty of serious code violations. People who own glass houses shouldn’t be surprised if others can see inside.

The media has widely reported that former Clippers coach Elgin Baylor once filed suit against the team for terminating his employment as head of basketball operations because he is black and a senior citizen. That speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Well, not really. Baylor was 52 when Sterling hired him in 1986.  A black front office executive was a rarity at the time.  Baylor, an eleven time all-star, was a hero in Los Angeles and a much esteemed basketball figure.

Unfortunately, he was a terrible executive.  During his 22-year tenure, the Clippers were the joke of the NBA. There were seasons when they lost eighty percent of their games.

It wasn’t all his fault. Sterling is a cheapskate owner. Still, he stuck with Baylor through thin and thinner.

When the axe fell, Baylor tried to convince an LA jury that he was a victim of racism. He said that Sterling ran his team like a southern planation.

The jury laughed it out of court, 12-0.  But the plantation meme stuck, and it has been widely echoed by the media this week.

The entire NBA stands accused of being a collection of rich old white men (and Michael Jordan) who “own” and exploit young black men for prestige and economic gain.

Once upon a time athletes were owned more or less in perpetuity by their teams. But that hasn’t been true for decades.

Today’s pro players have contracts negotiated by lawyers and agents. At the end of their contracts they are free to sell their services to the highest bidder. There is nothing racial about this—it is as true for Steve Nash as it is for Chris Paul. Comparing this to chattel slavery is too dumb to be anything more than anti-capitalist propaganda.

Besides, if the NBA is a planation, so are the country’s elite universities and media. They, too, are controlled and operated mostly by rich, old white men (and some rich old white women).

They, too, recruit and employ talent which they can exploit for their own prestige and profit.

According to the plantation theory, these institutions are actually far more progressive than the NBA, since 75% of the downtrodden b-ballers are black, while in the Ivy League less than 10% of the exploited field hand (aka professors) are African-American.

Now, a word about self-preservation.

Donald Sterling deserves every one of the alphabetical epithets he got in the first paragraph. He should have his mouth washed out with soap.

Unfortunately, there is no such cure for a dirty mind.

Everybody has, and sometimes blurts out, inappropriate thoughts in moments of what they imagine are private.

Most people’s thoughts aren’t as rancid as Donald Sterling’s--or as potentially costly to his business partners -- but in the era of omnipresent recording, they are bad enough to become damning soundbite. Or, as such gaffes will certainly come to be known, “Sterlings.”