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After Donald Sterling: Confronting and Punishing Racism in NBA Has Broader Implications


donald-sterling-e1398707406808 Donald Sterling was a man identified by various monikers: wealthy owner of the National Basketball Association’s [N.B.A.] Los Angeles Clippers basketball club, lawyer, dubious landlord,  litigant in proceedings initiated by the U.S. government and sugar daddy.

With the release of audio clips disclosing Sterling’s anti-black and anti-Latino racist views and revealing the premise for his past alleged discriminatory conduct, he added a new title: bigoted pariah.

After an investigation, on April 29, 2014 N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver pronounced judgment on Sterling at a delayed 2 p.m. press conference. It was Sterling’s voice on those clips. The content was rancid and unacceptable to the N.B.A. The punishment was a lifetime ban, the maximum fine under the N.B.A. Constitution ($2,500,000.00), and an extremely strong recommendation to the Board to remove Sterling from ownership.

Put another way, Sterling received the N.B.A.’s version life with no parole. Since then, it appears the process to effect all components of Silver’s judgment has started. The consequences of the incident and the punishment, however, are unlikely to rest solely on Sterling or remain within the ambit of the N.B.A.

More likely, the situation may have several implications for discipline in sports leagues and trigger various personal and societal questions about the nuances of bigotry and identity dynamics including:

  • new upper limits in the punishment for racist expression / conduct in, at the very least, the N.B.A. and the remaining three of the “Big Four” North American professional sports leagues and feeder amateur leagues;
  • a rising tide that lifts all punishments and penalties for less serious forms improper conduct animated by race (for example, carelessly insensitive conduct perhaps like that of the Spanish national basketball team at the 2008 Olympics in China or reckless utterances to an opponent in the heat of play like those historically seen in the National Hockey League);
  • more frequent punitive action against management and owners as well as against a broader set of stakeholders or affiliates, including media partners, suppliers and sponsors whose conduct falls below league anti-racist or anti-discrimination standards;
  • heightened sensitivity to and parallel punishments for discriminatory or bigoted expression grounded on any fundamental personal characteristic such as gender or sexual orientation;
  • chilling effects on sports industry participants’ private speech, based on an accompanying enhanced paranoia about the ease with which private conversations can become public and ubiquitous in a digital age and a litigious environment; and
  • evolution in the tone and emphasis in the response of leagues to alleged and proven instances intolerance and bias, particularly in view of Commissioner Silver’s authoritative and moving announcement of the discipline in the Sterling case.

Still, the fallout from the Sterling matter may have a deeper, intimate impact on the thoughts and feelings of the people closest to the situation and those more removed who have taken the events to heart.

Some are trying to reconcile Sterling’s views with his choice of a mixed-race mistress of African descent, contemplating how common such couplings are or if, in blissful ignorance, they are involved in one.

Sterling’s selection of black coaches and managers during his decades of ownership, and his personable overtures to black basketball executives like Toronto Raptors senior advisor Wayne Embry for advice on basketball matters, described by Embry on Sportsnet 590’s Prime Time Sports, may force some to wonder if they are just a tool exploited for some bigot’s benefit or whether smiling faces in their office really tell the truth. Inside or outside the N.B.A., like it or not,

Donald Sterling has compelled communities and individuals to confront issues of identity and attitude.

He has also made it fairly clear that we have not quite entered the post-racial era.