The NBA and Donald Sterling's Plantation Mentality

Another great day in NBA playoff action has become an afterthought thanks to the gossip website TMZ, which released a record of incredibly racist statements that it says were made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano having a silent moment. Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Another great day in NBA playoff action has become an afterthought thanks to the gossip website TMZ, which released a record of incredibly racist statements that it says were made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano. According to TMZ, Sterling was reacting to an Instagram photo Stiviano posted of her posing with NBA legend Magic Johnson. Here's a partial transcript:

Male voice: Why are you broadcasting? ... And why are you taking pictures with minorities? Why?
Female voice: What's wrong with minorities?
Male: Nothing. Nothing ...
Female: People call you and tell you that I have black people on my Instagram and it bothers you.
Male: Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo ... broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?
Female: You associate with black people.
Male: I'm not you and you're not me. You're supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.
Female: I'm a mixed girl. And you're in love with me. And I'm black and Mexican, whether you like it or not. ... You want me to have hate towards black people?
Male: I don't want you to have hate. ... I want you to love them -- privately. In your whole life you can be with them, every single day of your life.
Female: But not in public?
Male: But why publicize it on the Instagram and why bring it to my games?
Female: Why bring the black people to the games. I ...
Male: Don't put [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don't bring him to my games.

As if all that isn't racist enough, at one point in the conversation, he chides her for being "a born fighter." "You have the worst mouth," he says, yet another play on the stereotype of the hotheaded Spicy Latina.

The outrage against Sterling has been swift and accordingly strong. Snoop Lion (né Dogg) issued an NSFW statement, and Clippers "superfan" Darrell Bailey had this to say:

Are you kidding me? At a time when Clippers fans are looking forward to our first championship ever with an incredible team and coach, I am deeply saddened by this disturbing information. To know that the man responsible for putting me on the team plane to attend a playoff game in 2006 doesn't like black people is very upsetting. Furthermore, to disrespect a legend like Magic Johnson, who has dedicated his career to unite people, is a travesty. And now, for me personally, it all makes sense for the unjust treatment I've experienced behind the scenes from Clipper management. ... There is no place in sports for any form of bigotry or racism, especially from an owner of a professional team. This revelation has a profound negative impact on everyone. The question I have: What do you do when you love a team but dislike an organization?

Clippers players reportedly held a closed-door team meeting last night after the tape went public. Many fans, writers and public figures have called for the team to hold a symbolic protest and refuse to take the court in tomorrow's playoff game against the Golden State Warriors. Indeed, the incident, combined with the history of racist comments attributed to Sterling, begs the question of how one can reconcile bigotry with a business built largely upon the work and talents of black players. The plantation analogy is an easy one to make. "From picking cotton balls under insulting leadership to picking basketballs is not very much progress," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

The onus is now on the NBA and new commissioner Adam Silver to act quickly and prove that the league's strict ethical conduct policy doesn't just apply to Mark Cuban criticizing referees and players smoking pot. The league has initiatedan investigation. If the tape is confirmed, Sterling must be suspended, and the commission should look into the legality of having his ownership stripped. (Cuban's treatment of Stern's fines as a badge of honorshows that no multi-millionaire owner is going to change his behavior because of a few monetary slaps on the wrist.) Obviously, taking the team away from Sterling is unlikely, but there is absolutely precedent for sports leagues suspending owners for overt racism. In 1993, Major League Baseball banned Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for one year after she likened black people to "gorillas" and called Jews "sneaky bastards."

Sterling's punishment should be even harsher. Remember, another black NBA legend, Elgin Baylor, sued Sterling for unlawful termination due to age discrimination, and said the Clippers owner spoke of wanting to fill his team with "poor black boys from the South" led by a white coach. Baylor lost that case, but Sterling did agree to pay a record $2.725 million to settle a suit that claimed he discriminated against minorities in an apartment building he owned in Los Angeles.

This is Silver's first major test as commissioner. Starting with his televised remarks this evening, he has to set the tone for handling racial issues better than his predecessor. Former commissioner David Stern received and deserved much criticism for attacking the NBA's "street culture" by implementing a dress code that was decidedly tinged with racial implications. A league that is 78 percent black simply can't continue to condone an owner who, as Jemele Hill wrote, "makes Rush Limbaugh look like Martin Luther King Jr." To that point, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan posted a fitting response to Sterling on his Instagram:


We can all agree that it's time for Donald Sterling's tenure in the NBA to fade to black.

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