The NBA announced this week that it banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million, the maximum amount, after he admitted that a recording of him making racist comments was, in fact, him.
While I applaud NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for this action, it is clear that a $2.5 million fine on a man worth billions will have no impact, and forcing him to sell the team that he paid 12 million dollars for and now is estimated to be worth 700 million dollars seems to not be much of a "punishment." The larger question now is how we as a society effectively respond to and punish philandering, racist, bully billionaires in a country where wealth and gender dictates politics and repercussions of onerous behavior.
Some described the protest made by Clippers players of wearing their jerseys inside-out and dumping their Clippers gear in center court as tame, lame, or cowardly in contrast to the risk taken in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico with John Carlos and Tommie Smith. While on the medal stand, Carlos and Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem as a protest against racism in the United States.
In his memoir authored with sportswriter Dave Zirin, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, Carlos wrote of that moment, "I wasn't there for the race. I was there to actually make a statement. I was ashamed of America for America's deeds, what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time."
But this is not 1968, it is 2014 in what is supposed to be a post-racial America. Many of these players have never heard of Carlos and Smith, nor have they had to endure the rampant racism and discrimination that was the measure of those times. The Clippers players and coaches are contractually bound, and calls for the team to boycott or sit out the remainder of the playoffs as a protest were never reasonable or possible. What we do know in this age of social media is that owners of businesses and organizations are impacted when their profits and bottom lines are affected by either the bad behavior of their employees or, in this case, by the bad behavior of the owner himself.
One unavoidable fact is that the NBA is predominately made up of players (men) of color. The teams owners are predominately white (men), who are far removed from the realities of the lived existence of many of their fans and players.
Over the past week, Sterling has often been compared to the late Marge Schott. Schott owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999. In that period, she repeatedly showed herself to be racist, anti-Semitic, and generally intolerant. Yet, baseball enabled her for a long time, just as basketball has enabled Sterling, who is the NBA's longest-tenured owner. An important question that needs to be asked is why, for so long, did Sterling get so much leeway to behave so badly?
Joe Posnanski wrote a strong column addressing that question and why times are changing:
"Well, owners protected owners. It's always been that way. They would have protected Marge Schott too, protected her to the very end, except she wouldn't keep quiet. She just loved to talk to the press. People tried to protect her, but she could not help herself. Baseball didn't suspend and eventually push out Marge Schott for how she ran her team or even for her views. They suspended and pushed her out because she would not shut up about Hitler and African Americans and it finally was too destructive to baseball to overlook."
Similarly, the NBA knew what Donald Sterling was about. They knew. Over the last couple of days, you have no doubt seen the long litany of racism charges, sexual harassment charges, and huge settlements floating in his wake. The league knew about Sterling. The players who cared to know, knew. Everybody who wanted to know, knew. He was just about the last guy you would want owning an NBA team.
But Sterling, like Schott, got into the club. And he did enough generous things to keep getting awards for his charitable work from groups like the NAACP (he was about to receive his second NAACP lifetime achievement award before the tapes came out). And the NBA was willing -- no, more than willing, they were happy -- to tolerate Sterling's obvious history of narrow-mindedness and sleaziness so long as he didn't embarrass the league in some deeper way.
It is important to note that the other individual central to this saga is the iconic Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who was apparently the target of Sterling's racist remarks. This is not just any fan being told to stay away, it is a former NBA superstar, successful businessman and entrepreneur, and social activist. Johnson became a beacon for individuals living with HIV/AIDS and has recently been lauded for the way in which he has positively and openly responded to the news that his youngest son MJ is gay.
With fallout from the NBA's ban on Sterling, there is speculation that Johnson may be among some wealthy individuals who are considering purchasing the team if Sterling is forced to sell. This episode has shone a national spotlight on the disparities that continue to exist in our society today regardless of social class and economic status. That would be a fitting end to this saga of race and power and disgrace.