Donald Sterling, Ray Rice and the lessons of sports, racism and sexism
On Thursday, as the Donald Sterling saga plowed on with news that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had a $2 billion deal to buy the team, another sports story worthy of our collective public anger barely registered on the outrage meter.
Ray Rice – fresh off a video in which he dragged his then-fiancée from an elevator, followed initial charges that jumped from simple assault to aggravated assault, followed by a press conference last week full of self-righteous cluelessness – participated in his team’s OTAs.
And mostly … silence.
How are we not better than this?
We have two scumbags here: one a raging racist who happens to be a billionaire, the other an allegedly abusive man who happens to be a remarkably talented athlete.
If Sterling were, say, a high school principal, he’d be fired, shunned and no longer part of your life. Same for Rice. The things they did are not the same, but certainly neither man belongs in a profession that shapes our culture, inspires our kids and, in theory, reflects back to us our best selves.
The good news is that Sterling’s place in the game is under a full-on assault. And though he’s dug in his heels and made it ugly, there is something unifying in the fact most of us are fighting him together, if only with our outrage. NBA commissioner Adam Silver may have swung the hammer, and guys like LeBron James may have brought their brand and courage to exert major influence, but those of us cheering from the sidelines to do the right thing helped, too. Believe it.
So why aren’t we equally fired up and unified about Rice? Yes, his (allegedly) abused fiancée has since married him. So what? There’s a pattern among domestic violence victims of co-dependency and returning to the abuser. Unfortunately, especially on these and other matters affecting women, especially in the sports world, there’s a pattern among the masses of not caring enough.
Think Ben Roethlisberger. Oscar Pistorius. Tito Ortiz. Jameis Winston. The list goes on – not of the guilty, necessarily, but of not really caring deep down about the question of their guilt.
Do we offer up lip service? Sure. But actual anger that prompts change on the level that would, say, the Ravens treating the accusations against Ray Rice like something with real consequences? Something that must be addressed, now, instead of sidestepped?
Nowhere to be seen.
Shame on them.
Shame on us.
The zeitgeist that rightly thrust Sterling into crossover territory – past sports and into the realm of Anderson Cooper, Oprah and the anger of much of this country regardless one’s views on sports – was a great thing.
Still, there’s something hollow in the too-often silences – or, worse, the rolled eyes and “boys-will-be-boys” whispers – that accompany stories about our sports stars behaving badly toward women.
This is touchy, tough territory. It’s also true. My children – a daughter and a son – love sports because dad writes about sports, talks about sports on TV, talks about sports on radio. Sports consume a big chunk of our lives. And, as kids will, they ask questions about things that should seem obvious.
I’ve cringed at the idea of my daughter someday saying, after another example of domestic abuse: “Daddy, why didn’t he get in trouble?”
One of the great things about professional sports in this country is that under the guise of entertainment they force us to live and experience the very diversity that makes America great. We don’t do this enough in the rest of our lives. Sports force us to think and talk about race. They can serve as a bridge that connects those of us from different backgrounds to a shared experience. In these situations, as with Sterling’s, they can have a power far beyond the games themselves.
This is a country with a long history of racism. The Civil Rights movement and all the grotesqueness that made it necessary is still within living memory of so many. Even today we struggle to make sense or speak honestly or even speak to one another at all about race in America. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
It’s in that context that the Donald Sterling story became such a marvelous example of our better angels, and how sports can play a role in bringing those angels out. When he was caught on tape spewing his vitriol and hate, a cross-section of this country unified in its outrage and its insistence that Sterling must go.
This is the power sports can have. The Sterling story was the personification of the Marketplace of Ideas at play on the issue of racism. A lot of voices and ideas emerged, but only the right one -- he must go -- won out. That couldn’t be more in evidence now that Ballmer and the Sterling family trust reportedly have a deal to rid us of Sterling once and for all.
We do have some power, through these sports we sometimes take too seriously, to wring some meaning from our games.
Which is what makes the Rice situation even more infuriating.
Ethics should know no race, no creed, no color, no gender. I get that’s not how the real world works. The real world can be an ugly place. But we shouldn’t have to accept those things for what they are when they present themselves, especially when the come with audio or video that’s proof positive tailor made for collective action.
We didn’t with Sterling. We shouldn’t have here.
Part of the problem is that what makes our professional teams a perfect conduit for talking about race makes it far from that when talking about sexism.
The locker room, the arena, the bar with the game on, the banter about whatever sports is dominating the moment – these are mostly the territories of men. Black men, white men, Hispanic men, Asian men, a diverse array of men. Almost always men.
So, on issues of race, sports become a true melting pot, and with it we have different experiences and perspectives and truths. When Sterling unfolded, all of us, through sports, had ready access to black men who had a lifetime of living with racism in this country. Their words, their wisdom, their candor – all the things that came out after Sterling went on and on in those tapes – were enough to educate those of us without those life experiences.
That’s not so with issues that impact women. After the Rice video surfaced, I talked to a several smart, interesting former athletes and sports figures – good guys – about this. Several didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They argued Sterling was much, much different.
It’s because we are behind on issues of sexism in major sports. Because we don’t care enough.
When an athlete is accused of rape, there is still so much talk, on record and off, hinting that she deserved it, that she was a golddigger, that the poor guy had been set up, that you can’t know how hard it is to be a dude with so many women throwing themselves at you …
We need to be better than this.
As a country, we comported ourselves on the Donald Sterling saga in a way that should make us all proud.
But Ray Rice going through OTAs as if nothing happened is a reminder we still have a long ways to go on other issues that also matter deeply.
Sports can make us better. Time, for the sake of our daughters and wives and mothers and friends, to start including sexism as one of the areas they begins to address.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.