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Donald Sterling v. Daniel Snyder: A Case Study in How the NBA and NFL Handle Racism Differently

05/01/2014 04:02 pm 16:02:58 | Updated Jul 01, 2014

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Justice came swiftly for Donald Sterling, the alleged racist (and just plain weird) owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for his racist comments to his sidepiece. The lawyer in me finds this fascinating -- this was private conduct, and people, unfortunately, are completely free to be racist assholes in private. I understand, after years of studying and practicing law, that most of the time the victims of a lack of due process and authorities jumping to conclusions are poor people and people of color -- it is ironic that it's a rich, white dude. But before we jump up celebrating, I suggest we rethink ANYTIME we legitimize authorities convicting individuals of wrongdoing before the accused even had a chance to counter the evidence. That's happened to "us" many, many times before, and we should be especially careful of that sort of lack of meaningful redress. For those of us who are suspicious when authority is flexed around without explanation, this is a little bit scary. Is dude a racist? Most likely. But did he do anything in his public capacity that merited extreme action?

I honestly don't know. I haven't seen all the evidence. Right now, it's all just allegations.

Nonetheless, the NBA admirably took the incredibly strong action of banning Sterling for life from the NBA (even though he will still be the owner of an NBA team until he 1) sells; or 2) other NBA owners force him out). Overall, on a social justice level, it sounds like a pretty cool thing; the NBA took this seriously and understood that pissing off it's overwhelmingly Black players and coaches is not a good business move. Moreover, this move shows that Black folks in the United States have moved past government policies that characterized them as slaves or chattel or second-class citizens under Jim Crow, which dehumanized them for centuries and effectively said that they weren't qualified to get their feelings hurt because of their lack of humanity.

Due process considerations aside, that's a good thing -- perhaps we're moving into a era when bad actions toward vulnerable groups will be met with empathy and forceful action, instead of attempts to excuse and understand the bad actions. If you notice, nobody mentioned that there are absolutely more serious things for Black folks to be concerned about than Donald Sterling. Absolutely. Nearly 50 percent of Black men have been arrested by the age of 23. Between 1963 and 2010, almost 60,000 Black children and teens were killed by guns -- more than 17 times the recorded lynchings of Black people of all ages in the 86 years from 1882 to 1968.

Shit is real in the field. Much more important than some silly game of basketball. Right?

Still, it was cool to see the NBA ostensibly say, "Y'know what? Yeah, there's serious stuff going on, yet this is very important because this one owner reflects how THE WHOLE LEAGUE feels about a WHOLE RACE OF PEOPLE. And even though there is no consensus on whether or not Donald Sterling is a racist -- the Los Angeles NAACP defended him -- we know that we have to treat this topic with respect even without requiring every single Black person or organization to agree."

What you DON'T have is white folks within the NBA saying, "Look Black people, we decided that you have more important things to worry about within your community. Don't focus on Donald Sterling."

Which brings me to Daniel Snyder. Another alleged racist. And the NFL. Another professional sports league. A league that, unlike the NBA, allows allegations of racism to exist and actually justifies and explains it away.

See, whereas the NBA took fierce and forceful action in less than a week when it got wind of the horrible things that Sterling said about Black folks -- even erring on the side of possibly violating Sterling's due process -- the NFL has known that some Native people (and national Native organizations such as National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, et. al) have alleged that the Washington Redskins team name is racist for years, yet has done nothing. No public hearings, no investigations, no punitive actions.

Instead of public hearings, investigations or punitive actions, the NFL commissioner defends the name and summarily dismisses the allegations of racism by saying, "...the name [Redskins] is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect." That, combined with white-ass Daniel Snyder telling us what issues we should focus on within our communities -- we have pretty much complete dismissal of the alleged racism against Native people.

Why wouldn't the NFL take the offense/alleged racism toward Native people -- even though neither group has the consensus of everyone within their respective racial groups -- more seriously, like the NBA did with Sterling? Similar to the Clippers, there are certainly more dire and immediate concerns within the Native community than a sports team name, just like within the Black community; yet, that didn't prevent the NBA from taking action for the racist actions of one of their own.

Still, the NFL won't do that. Why not?

I suppose the only realistic and reasonable answer that we can conclude is that the NFL simply doesn't care about racism toward Native people in the same the way that the NBA obviously DOES care about racism toward Black folks. It's that simple -- they try to explain it away using old polls and made-up histories and anecdotes about the origin of the team names.

But that's all subterfuge, smoke and mirrors.

Native people, the NFL just doesn't care about us. The NBA, this week, gave us an amazing example of what a professional sports league WILL DO when it cares about one of it's constituencies. It showed that, YES, they CAN take compelling action when they care. The NFL simply won't do that. They are complicit.

For those that want the Redskins to change their name, perhaps it's about time we stop simply focusing on the Redskins; perhaps it's time to widen the target and boycott the NFL (and even my beloved Seahawks) and create alliances amongst all social-justice-minded people of all colors until the NFL creates some pressure to change the name. Justice is not a zero sum game; I'm 100 percent glad that the NBA took swift action to rectify any hurt feelings that African-Americans might feel over the alleged Donald Sterling's racist statements. That was the right thing to do, even if not completely thought out.

We should all be so lucky.

Like the NBA, obviously the NFL could take action against the Redskins if they really cared about racism against Native people. They don't. The proof is in the pudding. Therefore, maybe it's time Native people and people who dislike racism generally boycotted the NFL generally -- instead of simply the Redskins. Maybe that might cause some action.

Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and an attorney. He grew up on both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Indian Reservations and continues to work and live within his community. He is the author of two books, How To Say I Love You In Indian and Don't Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways), both available at www.cutbankcreekpress.com. He also writes his own column for Indian Country Today Media Network called "The Thing About Skins." His twitter handle is @BigIndianGyasi.