It is tempting to compare racists. That’s especially true when you look at what’s happened in the last week, when two white men — Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling — have drawn massive and warranted scrutiny over abhorrently racist remarks. Those lines are already being drawn.
Cliven Bundy’s story is well-known by now. The Nevada rancher, who had become a cause celebre among some conservatives for fighting the federal government over overdue grazing fees, went on a rant last week about “the Negro,” suggesting that life for black Americans may’ve been better under slavery.
Donald Sterling’s case is more complicated. An audiotape released to TMZ late Friday night purports to reveal the Los Angeles Clippers owner berating his mixed-race girlfriend for bringing Magic Johnson, a black former NBA all-star, to Clippers games and for posting a picture of him on her Instagram account due to his skin color. On Sunday, Deadspin released the full, unedited recording, which gets much, much worse.
More than just the comments, what’s really astonishing here is what pulls these two men apart: While Cliven Bundy is just a rancher, Donald Sterling is a massively powerful, wealthy, and influential man. What’s hard about Sterling’s case, and what makes it completely different from Bundy’s, is that it reveals that even at the top of one of America’s proudest, most diverse institutions, an abject racist can still pull the strings.
Cliven Bundy owes the federal government slightly more than $1 million in fees. Donald Sterling owns a basketball franchise that’s valued at well over $500 million. Bundy may’ve had his moment in the media spotlight, but Donald Sterling has been firmly ensconced in wealth and power for decades.
Of course, the actual comments allegedly from Sterling aren’t really a surprise. Sterling has a notorious history here, whether it’s settling for nearly $3 million in a case over racial discrimination at apartment buildings he owns, or heckling his players from his courtside seat. Or the detailed racial-discrimination lawsuit brought against him by Hall of Famer and former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor. Or Sterling celebrating Black History Month (which is February) with a March Clippers game featuring limited free tickets for “underprivileged children” — because, you know, black = underprivileged.
The problems with Sterling’s power aren’t lost on NBA players. The NBA, as Charles Barkley said Saturday on TNT, is a black league. African-American players made up 76.3 percent of the league as of last June. For all players in the NBA, Sterling’s ownership sends a message. “The thing is, [Sterling] is probably not the only [owner] that feels that way,” Portland Trailblazers all-star Damian Lillard said Saturday. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s like for black players on the Clippers to pull on their jerseys and play for a man who appears to detest them. It’s very hard to imagine what it’s like for black Americans anywhere to work under the same circumstances. Undoubtedly, there are plenty who do daily.
“The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation,” President Obama said Sunday in response to Sterling’s alleged remarks. “And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it.” So far, it seems like that’s coming. While Sterling’s past actions have largely been swept under the rug by the NBA, there’s some reason to be optimistic about the league’s new management, although it’s still not quite clear how much Commissioner Adam Silver can do. And by calling on the help of former player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the NBA Players Association has a proven ally on its side (and all you political watchers out there: file away that name).
It’s been an unbelievable week for the NBA. The first week of the playoffs saw seven consecutive games within one possession of victory in the last 10 seconds. It’s been a showcase for new stars (looking at you, John Wall), and for old dudes who just won’t give up (hi, Tim Duncan). But for all of those amazing things, everything that should’ve added up to the best week for the league in recent memory has been overshadowed by an 80-year-old, seemingly repugnant man. Unlike Cliven Bundy, and barring extreme NBA intervention, Donald Sterling will only go away when he’s well and ready, and he’ll likely do so with a big check in hand.
The defining image of this last week in the NBA should have been Vince Carter’s buzzer-beating game winner for the Dallas Mavericks, or Kevin Durant’s absurd four-point play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead, it’s of the Los Angeles Clippers players taking the court in Oakland on Sunday, black and white, their warm-up jerseys turned inside-out, black armbands on their wrists, trying to figure out how to keep themselves together in the face of a power that belittles them, that oversees them, that owns them.
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Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”
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