Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling, the Ban, and the Fight the NBA Needs To Have

By now, if you are reading this, you have most likely heard about the lifetime ban of Clippers owner Donald Sterling handed down by the NBA for racist statements Sterling made about Hall of Fame basketball legend Magic Johnson to his girlfriend.  I will not re-hash the comments here, but you can read all about them if you want to catch up on the controversy.  Regular readers of this space may be surprised to see an article about sports, but this particular controversy, I feel, is one that has crossed over into mainstream culture and become not just a sports story, but a cultural story.  With this in mind, I felt it incumbent upon Edge of Chaos, and myself personally, to share my thoughts.

For a bit of history and context, it should be made known to those who are not familiar with the NBA, the Clippers, or Donald Sterling, that his ownership of the team has long been regarded as pathetic and, by many measures, one of the worst in sports.  The Clippers were, for most of their history, regarded as a pathetic laughingstock of a team masquerading as an NBA franchise.  Players practiced at a junior college gym, and later a local athletic club until 2008, and were expected to launder and care for their own uniforms.  The Clippers, until moving to the Staples Center in 1999, always played in LA Memorial Arena on the USC campus, far from the more notable locations occupied by the Lakers and Kings, or the Ducks further south in Anaheim.  Sterling the skinflint routinely cut costs wherever he could, with the focus being frugality over fielding a winning team.  It was only within the last few years that spending went up, culminating with the NBA basically gifting them the best point guard in sports in Chris Paul, who teamed with draftee Blake Griffin and others in finally building a winning Clippers team.  The Clippers are now unarguably a far more talented team than the perpetually more successful Lakers, at least at the moment, and have real championship ambitions this year, and going forward as well.  But one wonders if the team is successful only in spite of Sterling, not because of him, and whether the NBA basically gifted this man the team he has in light of their manipulation of the Chris Paul trade.  But that is another discussion more suited for a sports blog. 

On the racism side, Sterling's reputation is extremely established and well-known to those who follow the NBA, and those who follow the Clippers.  It is also known to many tenants of his various real estate holdings, and the local legal community as well.  Sterling has been known to spend large amounts of money glorifying himself in full-page LA Times advertisements detailing a new homeless center that has yet to be built, further frustrating the local citizenry.  He also has a dubious history with his NBA management staff, most notably the last two general managers who both sued for wrongful termination, one of which was NBA legend Elgin Baylor who was quoted as saying Sterling had a "vision of a Southern plantation-like structure" for the Clippers.  Baylor's lawsuit was dismissed but all of these things, to me, constitute smoke.  There was not "fire" to be found here until just last week, when Sterling was admittedly set up for a fall at his team's most critical time of year.  But circumstances around how this information came to light are irrelevant at this stage.  The question before the NBA now, and it is a question NBA Commissioner Adam Silver vehemently answered yesterday at his press conference, is how does the NBA deal with this guy now that it's impossible to ignore who he is and what he stands for?

The NBA, of course, has its own dubious racial past, but it takes someone much older to remember those days.  You have to talk to guys like Celtics great Bill Russell and legendary Laker Elgin Baylor to really get a sense for what it was really like playing in the NBA during Jim Crow, and during a time when it was just "understood" that the NBA is a white league and that each team was limited to two black players each.  Such was life in the 1950s and early 1960s NBA.  They have admittedly made many, many strides towards racial and cultural diversity since then, and can boast inclusion of African-Americans, foreign-born players, and in Jason Collins' case, openly gay players.  It is for this reason, I believe, that the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver have chosen to make Donald Sterling and his racist comments/views an issue.  In short, I believe that this is an unprecedented fight that the NBA needs to have, for its legacy and future viability as a league going forward.

Very often in sports, the owners hold all of the leverage, and frequently get their own way during times of labor strife.  Such was the case in the lockout of 2011, which was itself colored with racial tensions and comments.  The owners basically offered the players a 51/49 split of league revenue for the first year of the deal, switching to 49/51 in subsequent years in favor of the owners going forward, take it or leave it.  Clearly the owners were holding all the cards and the players, short of playing overseas for pennies, forming their own league from scratch or something similarly drastic, had no choice but to submit.  History has shown this same pro-owner tilt in other professional leagues, including hockey, baseball and football.  But this time, the players, with social media rallying the public behind them in solidarity, finally had a plurality beyond anything they had seen in NBA history.  Fans, sponsors, and the players themselves, were all prepared to abandon the NBA en masse if something drastic was not done.  Game 5 in Staples Center, for example, was devoid of in game promotions and was dotted with covered-up advertisements as sponsors fled the team in droves.  The Warriors, and likely the Clippers also, along with other teams around the league, were prepared to walk off the court at tipoff and essentially boycott the playoffs if the league did not act, and severely.  Not to take anything away from Adam Silver or his leadership, but what choice did he and the Board of Governors have with such a consensus ready to drop the hammer on the entire league if it did not respond strenuously enough?  Such a thing is unheard of in professional sports.  And I say it's about time.  Fans and players are finally being heard, loud and clear.  Enough is enough.

With all of the bullshit fans put up with; high ticket prices, referee scandals, owners tanking teams while they line their own pockets, this scandal was truly A Bridge Too Far.  The players, with all of the concessions they made in the last CBA, were understandably tired of tolerating such an obvious adversary in their midst, a cancerous void that smugly sat courtside daring you to ignore him while the NBA ignored his bad behavior off the court and tolerated his horrendous "stewardship" of 1/30th of their league.  Donald Sterling had this coming folks, and quite frankly the NBA did too.  This was a long time coming, so please, do not get the events of the last few days twisted.  Was Donald Sterling set up for a fall?  Yes.  Did he deserve it?  Oh, most definitely.  Should he lose his team now?  He should have lost it long ago anyway.  Karma is a bitch, and the tab is due.  This moment, for all of the talk in Los Angeles about unity and brotherhood, is really about turning the pages of history, and declaring in one voice that we as fans, along with players, demand equal treatment and respect for all races, all creeds, and all cultures.  Shedding the past is the only way to step into the future, and the NBA is leaving no doubt: the future is now. 


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