Michael Jordan as an NBA player, owner and cultural force, has always been proudly apolitical. Most famously, he refused to oppose segregationist Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Yet Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist rant has so upended the NBA apple cart that even Jordan is speaking out.
“As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I’m confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I’m completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA—or anywhere else—for the kind of racism. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot & must not tolerate discrimination at any level”
After a period of initial silence, Jordan is now just the latest NBA owner doing the previously unthinkable: speaking out against a fellow member of their exclusive club.
These belated words are welcome, but it is impossible to take any owner seriously that they are “shocked” or “outraged” by Sterling’s surreptitiously recorded statement, because “news” that Donald Sterling is racist qualifies as news only if you’ve been living on a hermetically sealed space station for the last decade. Even Clippers coach Doc Rivers’s comment that when he took the job last year—he didn’t know that Sterling was a bigot but “probably should have”—strains credulity. Sterling, with a great deal of attendant publicity, has been a racist in both word and deed for some time. His statements about African-Americans, Latinos and Asians—not to mention his misogyny—are exceeded only by his much-protested practices as a discriminatory slumlord. (If anyone wants to know this history, you can read this article.)
After Sterling’s latest racist eruption, the NBA is now dealing with a full-on public relations nightmare, and right when Sterling’s team, the Los Angeles Clippers, are real contenders to win an NBA championship. Two stunning developments have been immediately clear in the aftermath. The first is the sheer number of NBA players that have loudly and proudly condemned Sterling’s racism. (It has to be noted that one of first to do so, was the league’s biggest star, LeBron James.) There have also been reports that the LA Clippers even openly discussed boycotting their game on Sunday in protest. Instead they wore plain red warm-up shirts in protest.
The second is just how many people have not only expressed “shock” at Sterling’s words but also have said variations of “I have never heard anything like this from owners in the NBA.” I cannot speak to whether or not this is true. It is certainly possible that Donald Sterling is the only owner who seems to be in a constant state of arousal, fear and rage at what he calls the “beautiful black bodies” of the NBA. But every owner, as well as former commissioner David Stern—whose paternalism was called out by Dwyane Wade during the 2011 NBA lockout—needs to carry the burden of having counted this person as a colleague for so long. And lest we forget, Donald Sterling’s great benefactor, friend and partner was the late Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers, a person who was universally mourned without criticism after he passed away.
In his press conference, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked by ESPN writer J.A. Adande about why, given his racist history, Sterling had never been sanctioned. Silver, in his best impression of Mark McGwire said, “I am not here to talk about the past.” But an NBA ownership structure that would tolerate a man like Donald Sterling for so long is, frankly, intolerable. Clearly owners—and maybe we should stop calling them “owners” given Sterling’s most recent, Romneyesque released comments—are now throwing him under their Humvee limos and driving back and forth because he’s become bad for business. Expect in the days ahead for Silver and the NBA owners to sanction Sterling or even pressure him to sell the franchise. But unless they look in the mirror and account for their years of enabling this man, it’s not enough.
One NBA player, whom I will not name, got in touch with me and just said, “I don’t doubt he’s racist, [but] I’m astounded (not shocked) that the league hasn’t taken action before. What concerns me is that the league is clearly only concerned with him possibly being a racist because he got caught, not because he is… Racism is being allowed as long as our customers and employees don’t find out.” This is the perception, and that perception is reality. Silver needs to own his league’s past and condemn it in the harshest possible terms. He needs to organize the owners to finally get Sterling out of this club, and then figure out a way to deal with the noxious fumes that remain. Maybe make the Clippers property of the city of Los Angeles so the club can actually be a force for good, particularly for those residents of the city who have been so damaged by Sterling’s existence both inside and outside the Staples Center.