Donald Sterling Is Not Cliven Bundy, He’s Much Worse

The Los Angeles Clippers owner’s alleged remarks are far more sinister.

Team owner Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers watches the San Antonio Spurs play against the Memphis Grizzlies during Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 19, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas.
National Journal
Matt Berman
April 28, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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