Where sports and politics collide.
If a mass killing perpetrated by a deeply disturbed misogynist does not make us look at how our society promotes and perpetuates violence against women, I am not sure what will. Our culture has always looked the other way or even validated gendered violence, particularly against African-American women. Yet in an era of lightning-fast cultural transmission, this historic violence seems to be both mutating and becoming more perniciously commodified before our eyes. It’s a violence that seems to exist in its own cultural category, where it is not only excused but also treated as deeply humorous—and woe to anyone who says otherwise. It’s a violence that has become so normalized, so all encompassing, that it often feels that saying or doing nothing becomes an act of complicity.
It does not take any sort of genius to draw a line in between the weekend’s shooting, the torments faced by Marissa Alexander or other women who defend themselves, and the fact that the quickest way to invite a barrage of social media hate is to say something as simple as, “I don’t think rape jokes are funny.” These dots connect to create a gun pointed at the ability of women to possess the most elemental human right in what is supposed to be a free society: the right to be left alone.
As a sportswriter, I try to look at the ways in which violence against women is excused and glossed over in professional sports, sending messages to their young, male audiences that this is somehow just part of being like their game-time heroes. This weekend, the day before the shooting, saw yet another one of those moments that should make the National Football League burn with shame, and take account for the role they play in creating this culture.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his wife Janay Rice held a press conference to apologize and explain why Rice was caught on camera dragging his wife by the hair from a casino elevator after punching her into unconsciousness. The Rices were basically throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion. That is nothing new, and we have seen male athletes and their wives do this in the past. What was different, at first bizarre and then obscene, was when it became clear that whoever controlling the Ravens official twitter account was live-tweeting the press conference. What they chose to tweet speaks volumes. After sending out a series of 140-character banalities to their half-million followers about how sorry Ray Rice was that he let down the organization and how he was going to come back better than ever, the Ravens official twitter account sent out the following: “@Ravens Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
Yes, she really did communicate this and, yes, it is tragic that a woman knocked unconscious and dragged by her hair by a heavily muscled pro athlete felt compelled to effectively say that she was in any way at fault. It is even worse that the team live-tweeted such a comment, attempting to do its part to shape public opinion and encourage “Ravens Nation” to welcome Ray Rice back into the fold. This is the Ravens not seeing that maybe there are things more important than defending their product. This is also of course, as I’ve written, far more than a Ravens issue but symptomatic of a league-wide problem in the way the NFL disregards violence against women. Or, as Tomas Rios wrote for Sports on Earth, “A woman has publicly sided with her abuser before, but the collusion between athlete and team to impose a feel-good narrative of personal redemption on the public sends a horrifying message. “
That tweet, and the NFL's entire approach to this question, demonstrates the difference between violence against women and what it means to have a culture of violence against women. The violence is what Ray Rice did to Janay Rice. The culture is a team—and a league—that thinks rehabbing the images of players who project the violence of their game onto women is no more than a public relations problem. This is no different than the connective tissue between the act of rape and rape culture. Just as "rape" is a crime and "rape culture" is when the crime is disregarded and mocked, violence against women excused is ensuring that violence will occur again. This is also why people who say “not all men” commit rape or violence against women don’t understand what it will actually take to resign these pathologies to the dustbin of history. It is a collective responsibility that men either take seriously, or risk becoming part of the problem.
The high rates of violence against the wives and girlfriends of pro athletes have a multiplicity of causes, but when the league institutionally either ignores it or provides set pieces to somehow justify it, this ceases to be an individual or athletic problem and becomes one that seeps into our pores and poisons every part of our culture. We saw what happened over the weekend, when that poison is weaponized.
Read Next: NBA prayers for Sterling to leave quietly may be answered.
Rumors that have been swirling over the last several hours from ESPN to TMZ have been confirmed: Los Angeles Clippers deposed owner Donald Sterling will be signing over control of the team to his “estranged wife” Rochelle. Ms. Sterling will be, according to reports from Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, attempting to sell the team as soon as possible. For the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was due to start hearings on the forced sale of the Clippers two days before the start of the NBA Finals, this has to be seen as some combination of Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl of good news… perhaps.
The only way this ends quietly will be if Rochelle Sterling agrees to sell the team in its entirety. Even though the pretext of Donald Sterling’s expulsion from the league was his taped racist comments about Magic Johnson, Silver spoke of Sterling’s “pattern of behavior.” This could only be read as a reference to his years of demonstrably racist practices as one of the most successful—and sued—slumlords in Los Angeles County. Not only did Rochelle Sterling benefit from these practices, she was an active participant. Ms. Sterling is named in many of the lawsuits as well as having been caught on tape impersonating a health inspector in order to enter people’s apartments to classify their ethnicity. (Say this for the Sterlings: they never hesitated to be “hands on” racists.)
As for the Sterlings, the value of NBA franchises has been skyrocketing in recent years due to a very favorable collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 with the players and the prospect of a gusher of international revenue over the next decade. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, sold this year for more than $200 million more than the bigger-market Philadelphia 76ers just three years ago. Any franchise on the market would see a conga line of hedge-fund suitors. The Sterlings would love a piece of this future revenue, but they probably won’t get it. If the NBA does, however, concede to have Shelly Sterling assume full ownership and make the sale, then at least she gets to choose who will take over the franchise. That means the Sterlings won’t have to suffer the indignity of seeing Donald’s bête noire Magic Johnson in their owner’s box. As for the NBA, if the Sterlings make the sale, it would indemnify them against anti-trust lawsuits that could have stated that if the Sterlings had made the sale, then they would have landed a better deal. Yet the number-one benefit for the NBA would be having this ugly ordeal end with a quiet whimper instead of a litigious bang. Sterling’s attorneys made a great deal of noise last week about taking this to court and going scorched earth on the entire league.
Now the NBA will never have to answer the question about why the Sterlings have been coddled for so long. Now the NBA won’t have to defend why racist housing practices, demonstrable misogyny and the verbal abuse of players was ignored for so long. The circus will end, an outcome for Adam Silver that would be better than a LeBron-Durant showdown in the finals. It would mean Donald Sterling gets to be publicly scorned one last time by the finger-wagging pundits. It would mean no more of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, putting his feet up on the table and telling us his deep thoughts about racism—and perhaps how he invented the terlet. It would mean Silver gets to be deified even more. And it would mean former commissioner David Stern can play the role of Rolo Tomassi: the guy who gets away with it. Meanwhile, everyone gets rich, no one has to answer for anything and the finals exist without any kind of shadow. For Adam Silver, you’d have to say this was a good day.
Dave Zirin has a book out next week called Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. His travels to Brazil and work on that project inform much of this article.
By criticizing the 2014 World Cup and the spending priorities of the Brazilian government, soccer legend Pelé has accomplished the rarest of feats in twenty-first-century sports media: he has shown the capacity to shock and surprise.
“It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been,” Pelé said during a lecture at Anahuac University in Mexico City. “Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals.… Brazil needs it. That’s clear. On that point, I agree [with the protests]. But I lament what protesters are doing, which is breaking and burning everything. It’s money that we will have to spend again.”
These comments are without question tepid given the scale of the assault taking place on Brazil’s poor in the lead-up to the World Cup. It also ignores that much of the violence has been perpetrated by the Brazilian military police, who merit nary a dollop of criticism from the 73-year-old legend. What is remarkable is that Pelé said anything at all. There is a reason why Brazilian soccer star turned politician Romário once said of the soccer legend, “He is a poet when he does not speak.” Romário said this because Pelé has never failed to plant himself on the wrong side of history. Pelé was there arm-in-arm with Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva when Brazil secured the World Cup for 2014 and the Olympics for 2016. To hear him raising actual criticisms of how the money has been spent is akin to Michael Jordan taking a stand against labor abuses perpetrated by Nike.
After all, this is Pelé: the first athlete to ever trademark his own name. This is Pelé, who as a brand and a blank-slate superstar athlete, was both ahead of his time and out of touch. This is Pelé, the person who said last year, as rubber bullets were flying and tear gas was being shot directly into the eyes of demonstrators and bystanders, that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.” This is Pelé, who advised that demonstrations should be postponed until after the Cup and was roundly jeered.
This is who Pelé is. It is also who Pelé has always been. In the 1960s, when “the revolt of the black athlete” was on everyone’s lips, Pelé was criticizing Muhammad Ali for resisting the draft and refusing to fight in Vietnam. In an era where the rulers and rules of the world were being challenged, Pelé met and entertained European royalty. He allowed Brazil’s dictatorship to use his image on postage stamps and went on “goodwill tours” to newly independent African republics on behalf of whichever of the rotating dictators happened to be in charge. He dressed in African garb, celebrating a Brazil in which the position of the Afro-Brazilian masses was dire.
It is not that Pelé was a hardline, heartless right-winger, as much as he was someone who chose to risk very little. The Brazilian government was, ultimately, his most important patron, and he sided with the ruling power in his country, right or wrong, time and again on the question of the widespread poverty that plagued Brazil for decades. Pelé’s stock answer was that God had made people poor and his function in their lives was to use his God-given athletic greatness to bring joy into their difficult lives.
After Brazil’s victory in the 1970 World Cup, the military dictatorship pulled out all the stops to bask in his glow. Pelé was no unconscious actor in this. When asked in 1972 about the autocracy, he responded, “There is no dictatorship in Brazil. Brazil is a liberal country, a land of happiness. We are a free people. Our leaders know what is best for [us], and govern [us] in a spirit of toleration and patriotism.” Keep in mind that when Pelé was saying this, 25-year-old Dilma Rousseff, now the country’s president, was being tortured in a military prison. One wonders if this has ever come up in conversation.
Pelé wanted to use this World Cup as his swan song on the international stage. He has released a book and is attempting to cash out while people are still paying attention. The fact that he feels compelled to actually speak out about the carnival of injustice FIFA and the Worker’s Party are creating with the 2014 World Cup only underscores just how deep the crisis remains throughout the country. When you spend billions to host a soccer tournament and people are putting up murals like this on the walls of the country, discontent will boil and steam. Now even Pelé is getting smoke in his eyes.
Read Next: Donald Sterling may be going nuclear.
Donald Sterling is not going to go gently into that good night. In fact, the 81-year-old multibillionaire looks like he wants to leave the NBA with a titanic bang. After hinting to Anderson Cooper during his instantly infamous CNN interview that he would gracefully exit (“I love [the other owners] and I respect them. And whatever their decision is with regard to the disposition of my terrible words, then I have to do it, I think”) his attorneys have announced that they would be fighting the collective desire of the planet to remove him as owner of the Clippers. In addition, his lawyers have made clear that he would not pay the $2.5 million fine he has been ordered by the league to fork over for racist comments and a “pattern of behavior” that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver states, has brought tremendous harm to the league.
This decision by Sterling to fight it out is entirely unsurprising. Throughout this process one would be excused for thinking that “Donald” is this man’s middle name and his first name is “The Very Litigious” given that his every description has been “the very litigious Donald Sterling.”
Yet if the Slumlord Billionaire goes forward beyond a lawyer’s threats, he will not win this lawsuit. Once we do away with the pomp and circumstance, being a pro-sports owner is basically being the same as being a franchisee. Like any franchisee in any business, Sterling’s claim of private property over his franchise has massive legal limitations. If I started a Quiznos and served up rat sandwich wraps served in a dirty ashtray, Quiznos HQ would—I sincerely hope—close me down. This is what Donald Sterling has done with the Clippers. Over the course of decades he’s been serving up those rat-wraps and calling it an NBA franchise. His personal behavior has been beneath contempt. His business practices as a slumlord as well as his misogyny would shame all but the shameless. He is a liability and, by every analysis that I have read, the NBA constitution have it within their power to “disenfranchise” him.
Yet despite his meager chances for success, we should hope Donald Sterling does take his fellow owners to court, because while any of us would probably last less than an hour selling Quiznos rat-wraps, Donald Sterling was sheltered for over thirty years in the NBA suites. Let the NBA answer these questions in court: If Donald Sterling was such a liability, why has he been an owner in good standing since the days of disco? If Adam Silver wants to argue that a “pattern of behavior” is at the root cause of his expulsion, then why is it only a problem now? If Sterling is such a liability, why was he handed one of the five best players in the NBA—Chris Paul—in a direct intervention by former NBA Commissioner David Stern? If his reputation as a monster is so well-known, why did Doc Rivers sign up to coach this club? Why did Paul re-sign with this team? If this is really about racist statements, then maybe Donald Sterling will elucidate for us some of the things he has heard in smoke-filled back rooms over the last three decades. I’m sure many of us would love to know what, say, OKC Thunder owner Clay Bennett has said over the course of that time.
By taking them to court, Donald Sterling also ensures that, at least in name, he will still be the owner of this franchise come the start of the 2014–15 season. Doc Rivers has said he may not return to coach if a Sterling’s name is profiting from his labors. All-Star forward Blake Griffin has said that his future with the team may not be for long as well. What is the NBA prepared to do? In the best interests of the game, could they declare every player on the Clippers an unrestricted free agent? Will players from other teams go on strike and refuse to play against the Clippers? Will fans show their support by not going to the damn games? A lot of people—owners, media, players—have talked a lot of high-minded rhetoric about why racism has no place in the league. Sterling is now playing “chicken” with their threats, daring them to walk it and not just talk it. Will all of the “shareholders” in the NBA put principle ahead of profit?
This lawsuit may actually provide answers to some, if not all, of these questions. One thing it can certainly do is finally put a punctuation mark on the end of the David Stern reign as Grand Poobah of the NBA. It’s time to air out the room. It’s time to open the blinds. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If that sunlight is provoked by the twisted, litigious mind of Donald Sterling, then so be it.
Read Next: Just before the World Cup, Brazil is on the brink.
Dave Zirin has a book out next week called Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy. His travels to Brazil and work on that project inform much of this article.
For people just tuning in, the idea that people in Brazil would be protesting the 2014 World Cup makes about as much sense as New Yorkers’ rebelling against pizza. And yet here we are, less than one month before the start of the Cup, and demonstrations bear the slogan #NãoVaiTerCopa, or “There will be no Cup.”
Protests, strikes and direct actions have been flaring up across the country as the 2014 FIFA World Cup approaches. Most notably, as many as 10,000 people in São Paolo under the banner of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, or MTST, has occupied a major lot next to Arena Corinthians, site of the World Cup’s opening match. They call their occupation “The People’s Cup” and point out that the nearly half a billion dollars that went into building the “FIFA quality stadium” next door could have been used to combat poverty or improve healthcare. The slogan “we want FIFA quality hospitals and schools” still rings out as it did a year ago, when during the Confederation’s Cup, Brazil saw its largest protests in a generation. Now there is an even sharper desperation as the cup approaches. Maria das Dores Cirqueira, 44, a coordinator for the MTST, told the Los Angeles Times, “When the government told us we would host the World Cup, we hoped there would be improvements for us. But they aren’t putting on a Cup for the people, they’re putting on a Cup for the gringos.”
This belief that the lion’s share of Cup expenditures are for foreign consumption, while the disruption and pain will be shouldered by Brazil’s masses, is widespread. Every protest, every rally, every cry of despair is connected to the “the three D’s’”: displacement, debt and defense. The stats on displacement, debt and defense can be numbing or easy to disregard for outsiders. The numbers on people expelled from their homes vary wildly, but without question, hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable residents in the country have been or will be relocated by either carrot or stick, whether through financial reimbursement or through the barrel of the gun.
As far as debt goes, this will be the most expensive World Cup in history, with a low-estimate price tag of $15 billion. And then there is “defense.” In addition to harsh new “anti-terror” legislation, Brazil’s government will have more boots on the ground than any World Cup has ever witnessed: more than 170,000 security personnel, 22 percent more than South Africa saw in 2010. This brand of “defense” will drive up the displacement and debt on the ground in Brazil, as “safety” becomes the catch-all justification for President Dilma Rousseff and the ruling Workers Party’s every step. It is also “defense” that is driving people and organizations into the streets to say Não Vai Ter Copa. The “defense” operation has put the near-entirety of its focus on internal targets, which creates the appearance that all of this money is being spent to protect wealthy soccer tourists from the people of Brazil themselves. (Yet even some of the internal security measures are not immune from the discontent, as stadium security officers went on strike recently saying that they wanted “FIFA quality wages.”)
As Brazilians suffer these unprecedented disruptions into their lives, the words of those in charge could not be more tone deaf. Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo huffed in March that any anger would dissipate by the time the Cup was underway, saying, “People will be more concerned with celebrating rather than protesting.” FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke seemed to pine for the dictatorial Brazil of yesteryear when he said that “working with democratically elected governments can complicate organizing tournaments.” The foot-in-mouth Valcke also commented recently that FIFA has been “through hell” trying to keep the World Cup on schedule. It is safe to guess that the “hell” of having your home bulldozed or being beaten and gassed by police is slightly worse than anything Valcke has had to endure.
The calls for protest aim to highlight the pain as well as show the world who is behind the curtain, pulling the strings. There is a highly sophisticated awareness that just as the government’s World Cup plans for Brazil are designed for international consumption, there is also an unprecedented global spotlight. The great journalist Eduardo Galeano once wrote, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.” Protesters aim for nothing less than to drag FIFA from the shadows and into the light. If they are successful, it will leave a legacy that will last longer than the spectacle itself.
* After we published this article, I received the below message from my friend Dylan Stillwood who is living in Brazil. His eyewitness observations are extremely helpful. He wrote,
"It's almost impossible to keep track of the wave of strikes and demonstrations taking place across Brazil, and it will only heat up more as the World Cup approaches. There were scenes of chaos across Brazil yesterday as the 'There Will Be No Cup' movement was repressed with tear gas and rubber bullets in major World Cup cities. In São Paulo, ten thousand public schoolteachers, who have been on strike for three weeks, marched to City Hall. Meanwhile, the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) joined forces with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and blocked highways near the Itaquerão stadium, where the opening game will be held, as well as in the west and south zones of the city. In Recife, which will host five games, the military occupied the streets with tanks as a strike of the police and firefighters entered its second day. Teachers are also on strike in Rio and Belo Horizonte, both Cup cities, and their unions officially joined the anti-Cup protests. Rio was paralyzed by a wildcat bus strike for two days, while subway workers in São Paulo are threatening to do the same. The list goes on: oil workers in Cubatão, armored car drivers in São Paulo, civil servants in Belo Horizonte, airport workers in Guarulhos, just to name a few. There have even been protests at Brazilian embassies abroad. Many Brazilians have fallen out of love with the World Cup after seeing the destruction it's caused. The word 'FIFA' is about as popular as 'FEMA' in New Orleans after Katrina. A web poll at Veja magazine showed that only 22% of readers would root for Brazil, while 34% planned to root against. Everyone has commented that the traditional pre-Cup festivities -- painting the streets, hanging up green and yellow bunting -- is hard to find this year. In a poor neighborhood in São Paulo, one woman commented, 'The city hasn't even sent milk for our kids yet. How am I going to paint the street?' Another added, 'My children have a fever and there's no doctor to attend them. I can't think about the Cup in this situation.' But Brazilians haven't forgotten about the protests last year, and the last few weeks have shown that the action off the pitch will be just as intense, and much more decisive for Brazil's future, than the action on it."
Read Next: Michael Sam gets drafted, and the NFL has issues.
After months of resistance, I finally saw the Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio film The Wolf of Wall Street and it was everything I feared it would be: a steaming pile of shit that could double as the recruitment video for sociopathic dude-bros eager to enter the dwarf-throwing, woman-shaving, parasitic world of high finance.
Part of making leading character Jordan Belfort vile but also enticing was to ensure that he and his “Merry Men” weren’t presented as open racists. I highly doubt that in the real world, these people were proudly sexist, bigoted and cruel but drew the line at racial slurs. I think it’s far more likely they wallowed in whatever piggery their bank accounts and attendant arrogance allowed.
The film also made me think a great deal of a different kind of wolf. Maybe not the Wolf of Wall Street, but the Wolf of Crenshaw: Donnie Tokowitz a k a Donald Sterling. Both made fortunes by decimating the lives of ordinary people because their fortunes acted as societal sanction for their activities. If they were getting rich, then it must be all right.
The difference between Belfort and Sterling is that one wolf made his money looking at numbers flit across a screen and cold-calling anonymous voices. While the other wolf—Donald Sterling—drove around his projects, looked his tenants in the eye and, close enough to smell their breath, treated them like they were less than human because of the color of their skin. Yet Sterling’s great sin, as we are seeing, is that he couldn’t contain the outlet for his bigotry to the poor. When Donald Sterling left the projects and made his way to the Staples Center, he would also look at his millionaire players, alternately ogle their bodies or curse them and treat them like they were less than human because of the color of their skin.
Fellow NBA owners, no matter how many people their businesses harm—and new Clippers CEO Richard Parsons has certainly harmed his share—are supposed to leave those hatreds at work and discard them at the locker room door. You are supposed to love your star players and point out that Colin Powell/Condi Rice/Magic Johnson deserve color-blind admiration. (As for how the wealthy see President Obama, that is a more complicated discussion.)
It is here we see Donald Sterling’s cardinal error as a racist. It is not the people harmed on Crenshaw or in East LA. It is the fact that he is, as my colleague Mychal Denzel Smith described, “an impolite racist.” Burying the poor is just business. Hell, Mayor Kevin Johnson—that voice for Sterling justice—has slums. But if you insult Magic Johnson, wealthy white people act like this is their “I am Spartacus” moment.
For those who may have missed it—and it is difficult to wonder how anyone has—Sterling was interviewed by Anderson Cooper and delivered a master class in anti-public relations. People have described this interview as a profile in dementia, but there was nothing, to my eye, off-kilter about Donald Sterling. He was exactly who he has always been: blunt, nasty and animated by his hatreds. Most pointedly, Sterling went after the person he sees as the reason for his troubles, Magic Johnson.
Among many other things, Sterling said of Magic Johnson, “He’s got AIDS. Did he do any business? Did he help anybody in South LA?… What kind of a guy goes to every city and has sex with every girl and he catches HIV. Is that somebody we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself.”
There was certainly more, but once again, it was specifically the attack on Magic that immediately brought NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to the barricades. Silver said:
“I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack. The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.”
And yet, the question still lingers every time Adam Silver issues another apology to Magic Johnson. It lingers as owners find the highest of possible high horses to condemn Sterling’s latest embarrassment. It lingers when former Commissioner David Stern—assumedly from retirement in Colonel Kurtz’s old compound—praises Silver’s actions: Why was Donald Sterling coddled for so long? Why were all of his words and deeds—deep in racism, rich with misogyny—ignored by the NBA? Kevin Johnson demanded answers to that last week, and then quickly forgot that he even asked the question. The answer, unfortunately, can be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, when Jordan Belfort says, “There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.” As long as the objects of Sterling’s pathologies were the poor, his fellow owners didn’t blink. But mess with Magic, you are now messing with someone in the club. Selective morality: without it, the money just doesn’t get made and the world doesn’t spin. But rarely do we see it open and naked to the world, on such a grand stage as we are with the NBA vs Donald Sterling.
Read Next: Michael Sam gets drafted, and the NFL has issues.
The best Twitter joke this year was W. Kamau Bell trying to start the hashtag #letshaveanuanceddiscussion. Having a nuanced discussion, one tweet at a time, is only slightly easier than being that damn camel trying to make it through the eye of a needle. Today, as the last rounds of the NFL draft played out on multiple television channels and the names of players scrolled across the screen, nuance was the last thing many of us wanted to exercise. Michael Sam, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year who told the world he was gay last February, was going undrafted, eventually picked 249th in the seventh and last round by the St. Louis Rams. This in and of itself was history, and not only because Sam was drafted. No SEC DPOY had ever gone that long before being selected. In fact, no SEC DPOY in the last ten years had even lasted past the second round.
The reasons for this are on one level complicated. Michael Sam had a terrible NFL combine. He is a “tweener” neither big enough to play defensive line nor quick enough to be an every-down linebacker. He projected even before he “came out” as a mid-round pick. All of that being said, Michael Sam fell down draftboards, costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars, because of the slow steady drip of groupthink that became a flood and took over the process. NFL “draft experts” prepared the public to not expect any history this weekend, emphasizing that his sexuality had nothing to do with it.
But if Michael Sam’s sexuality’s being an inhibitor to his draft status is not your starting point for understanding all of this, I believe you’re lost without a compass. This is not to argue that all general managers in the NFL are homophobic. It’s not about what kinds of prejudice lurks in the hearts of individual executives. It’s about a systemic problem in an NFL that loathes independent thinkers, fears political controversy and hates “distractions.”
The NFL's homophobia is in an institution that equates being gay with being “controversial” or “political,” not realizing that this is their problem, not Michael Sam’s. This is the league imbibing and regurgitating the same backward logic that keeps people in the closet, scared to tell their family and friends who they are and doing horrible damage to themselves and the people close to them. This is why we can talk until the cows come home about whether Michael Sam is a “tweener” as a player, his poor combine and all the rest of it but it doesn’t get at the root of the issue. This is why we can praise NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—yes, Roger Goodell—for being out front in supporting and welcoming to Sam when he came out, but we also need to understand what happened and why this groupthink about Sam took root.
As sportswriter Howard Bryant said, Michael Sam is threatening to the institutional biases that exist in the league precisely because he was brave enough to try and control his own narrative. For a league built on idealized notions of machismo and toughness, for a league that speaks in military jargon like they would’ve been the first one to storm the beaches of Normandy if given half the chance, they were a profile in cowardice this weekend. They were scared. It’s the same fear that you see when Goodell announces that they want to police and punish players for saying n____, but are scared to do anything but continue to promote a racial slur as the name of one of its teams. It’s the same fear you see when they aggressively promote tackle football for kids—with ads particularly aimed at moms—during the Super Bowl while their own data comes in at a taxi-cab meter pace about how playing tackle can cause permanent brain injury in children. It’s the same fear you see when they suspend one of their best players for smoking weed. What NFL bosses want, need and crave above all else, is control. Michael Sam represented a loss of that control because he dared—I will say it again—to try and control his own narrative. That is the NFL’s problem, not Michael Sam’s. It also has nothing to do with his forty time at the combine. And that, in my view, it is the starting point for understanding why Michael Sam lasted until pick number 249. All praise to Jeff Fisher and the Rams for stepping up to the NFL's risk-averse culture and not letting this young man suffer the ritual humiliation of going undrafted under the brightest possible spotlight. All praise to Michael Sam for his bravery and selfassurance to deliver the kiss heard 'round the sports world. All praise for Sam's righteous anger at having slipped down draftboards, tweeting out, "Michael Sam is pissed off for greatness!" But the NFL has issues, and they were on full display on Saturday.
Read Next: Donald Sterling, awful sports owners and the "slippery slope."
Let’s start with the obvious. Behind every great fortune is a great crime and, with the exception of the 364,122 owners of the Green Bay Packers, there’s no owner in pro sports who does not have some blood under their buffed fingernails. This is a club of billionaires, and that kind of money doesn’t come from scratching Lotto tickets.
Let’s also state the obvious and say that Donald Sterling is hardly the sole racist who calls the owner’s box his home. If you think he is, I have some Lady Gaga tickets at the Verizon Center to sell you. One person who works amongst the owners in major North American sport e-mailed me just to say, “I can tell you off the record about at least three of these guys who talk in a way straight from the Donald Sterling handbook.”
But even though many owners are far from cuddly creatures and have taken part in “wealth building” exercises that make Sterling’s archipelago of slums look like a side project, we should not be cynical about what just took place in the NBA. In fact, we should embrace it.
History has been made with the banning of Donald Sterling. Dating back to the uprooting of Chavez Ravine to create Dodgers Stadium, we have seen professional sports use “eminent domain” to separate people from their property to build their sports cathedrals. Here we have Adam Silver and the NBA owners lining up to seize the property of Donald Sterling not only because he is an embarrassment and a bigot but, most critically, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, because of a “pattern of behavior.” (Sterling will of course be compensated to a far greater degree than those kicked out of their homes to build stadiums.)
That pointed reference to Sterling’s years as a slumlord immediately raises the issue of what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fearfully called the “slippery slope.” As Cuban said, “If it’s about racism and we’re ready to kick people out of the league, OK? Then what about homophobia?… What about somebody who’s anti-Semitic? What about a xenophobe? In this country, people are allowed to be morons.” I can’t speak for Cuban, but given the billions in public dollars handed to owners in public financing, tax breaks and public trust, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the owner of a franchise not be a raving bigot. But Cuban also of course pointedly ignores that Sterling was a bigot in word and deed. Mark Cuban is not, to use his language, “a moron.” The real fear that beats in his libertarian heart is that the harm caused by Donald Sterling’s business practices could be used against other owners as well. After all, if we start judging in the public square how billionaires make their money, few would dare to even leave their house.
If Donald Sterling’s slums make him unsuitable to own an NBA team, what do we say about the repeated chemical dumping practices of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan? His company Flex-N-Gate has been cited for “39 violations of hazardous waste regulations over 20 years.” Workplace conditions at Khan’s plants have routinely sent his employees to the hospital. Chemical dumping also has a long history of racism, as the neighborhoods with the least power get the dumping and the ensuing ill-health effects.
If Donald Sterling is a public embarrassment, what do you say about David Glass, owner of the Kansas City Royals and former CEO of Wal-Mart. In 1992, Dateline NBC broadcast damning scenes of Bangladeshi children slaving away at Wal-Mart products. When asked to defend this practice, Glass said simply, “You and I might, perhaps, define children differently.” He stomped out of the interview before answering why signs in Wal-Mart that said “Made in America” were hanging over goods made by Bangladeshi children. Yet David Glass remains.
If the NBA aims to welcome Jason Collins and have a league where homophobia is a thing of the past, how can it still have Dick DeVos as the owner of the Orlando Magic? DeVos has for four decades been the fundraiser in chief for the right-wing edge of the Republican Party. His nonprofit, the DeVos Foundation, has pumped millions into groups that support radical “reparative gay therapy” and other “traditional” family values, as other members of the DeVos clan have also underwritten “the culture war” for the radical right. Ironically, all their free-marketeering and railing against “creeping socialism” didn’t stop them from taking hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for the new Orlando Magic arena. (DeVos is not the only free marketeer to use public financing to underwrite political pet causes, including the keeping of LGBT people in the closet. Ladies and Gentlemen, your Oklahoma City Thunder!)
And then there is Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football team. I’ve written about Snyder enough. Either we accept racism in sports or we oppose it. In the post-Sterling world, we have had politicians from Harry Reid to John McCain who have said that it is time for the name to change. Not only does Snyder clutch onto the team, but also does so like a cornered bobcat, lashing out at anyone who dares encroach on his precious brand. If Sterling’s racism has no place in sports, then the question of how the Washington football team can continue to be named after a slur becomes a crackling, livewire discussion.
Maybe Mark Cuban is correct. Maybe it is a slippery slope. And maybe, after so many years of billionaires living above any semblance of the law, this Donald Sterling moment is even bigger than we think. Maybe, this slope should be greased up and we should not be afraid to get behind the once untouchable owners in professional sports and give a little push.
Read Next: No sympathy for Shelly Sterling.
I couldn’t understand why Rochelle Sterling, the wife of deposed racist owner of the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling, was sitting courtside for the Clippers dramatic game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors. After all, Donald Sterling, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, wasn’t being banned for just one set of recorded comments, however offensive, but for a “pattern of behavior.” Silver did not spell it out, but it was assumed by everyone with a working cerebrum that by “pattern of behavior,” the commissioner was referring Sterling’s years as a slumlord. After all, he had been cited repeatedly by the Justice Department for violating the Fair Housing Act and, according to court testimony, spoke about black, Latino and Asian people in a manner that would make Archie Bunker blush.
If this “pattern of behavior” cemented Silver’s resolve to ban Donald Sterling, then why is Rochelle a k a “Shelly” still attending Clippers games? After all, she was also named in these lawsuits and accused of abusive racist language similar to her husband’s.
Ms. Sterling denies ever trafficking in racial slurs, but far more damningly, has also been captured on video illegally entering the homes of people in the Sterling tenements by impersonating a health inspector. As “health inspector,” she asked for and recorded the ethnicities of their tenants. (The Sterlings were big on racial quotas for their housing projects.) Even if she were an actual health inspector, and not just playing one on the Internet, this is illegal.
Given Donald Sterling’s demonstrable misogyny, I’m sure these sixty years of marriage have not been easy for Ms. Sterling. But these personal travails don’t excuse business practices that are racist and beyond the pale.
So, once again, why was Shelley Sterling courtside? Why was she leading cheers, embracing players and playing the role of embattled but brave cuckqueen: a veritable “Good Wife” of the hardwood? It turns out that this was the doing of Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
Following their victory over the Warriors, Rivers said:
It’s a tough one for Shelly, really. She didn’t do anything wrong. You have compassion for her. I kept hearing about the girlfriend, and Shelly’s the wife. You know what I mean? I talked to her today, and she’s been through as much as anyone as well. She asked if she could come, which I thought was a very nice gesture, and she just wanted the players to know that she loved them, and she told me to tell them. I thought, why not?
Rivers has been praised effusively throughout this whole process for his class and grace under pressure, keeping his team together amidst the swirl of distractions. Yet if this embrace of Rochelle Sterling is a mistake, painting her as a tragic figure is obscene. It is not as if Doc Rivers, at this point, is unaware of the Sterlings’ history. He said earlier this week that he “probably should have” researched more into Donald Sterling’s past. He should also know more about Shelly Sterling’s hands-on tenement management techniques, as they’ve received extensive coverage this week in the local LA media. By coddling Ms. Sterling, Doc Rivers sends a message that the hounding of thousands of the poorest residents in Los Angeles is a lesser crime than being caught on audio being a racist jackass.
Rivers should read and reread the section of the 2006 justice department lawsuit that reads, “Defendants Donald Sterling, Rochelle Sterling, and their agents and/or employees have engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and familial status in connection with the rental of dwellings owned by the Korean Land Company, the Sterling Family Trust, and Donald and Rochelle Sterling, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
It is still possible that Rochelle Sterling will end up as owner of this team. Adam Silver left that loophole open in his press conference by not guaranteeing that the team would leave the clutches of the Sterling family. Even if the NBA appoints an interim CEO for the team, that is no legal guarantee this will end with the Sterling family on the outside. One wonders if the highly litigious Donald Sterling would dangle a transfer of the team from himself to Shelley as a compromise to keep thirty years of NBA dirty laundry out of open court. But in the short term, her presence at games is like a looming reminder that when the smoke has cleared, one Sterling has been merely replaced with another.
Ironically after the Game 7 victory, Doc Rivers gave a passionate speech in which he said, “We needed that. The adversity is good for us.” If adversity is what they want, then coddling Rochelle Sterling guarantees more of the same.
Read Next: How The New York Times just rewrote the history of sports.
Timothy Egan has an op-ed in The New York Times calling sports “the most progressive force in America.” He points to the ways that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball a decade before the civil rights movement and is honored today as “players throughout the country wear his number, prompting millions of kids to ask their parents what that is all about.” Egan also praises Muhammad Ali as someone “with a mouth as quick as his jab, [who] forced a conversation about pride and prejudice that went far beyond the boxing ring.” He lauds present-day figures like Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for calling out racist codewords in the media, and delivers his most effusive praise to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, writing, “In issuing the sports equivalent of the death penalty—lifetime ban, probable forced sale of his franchise—to the basketball owner Donald Sterling, the N.B.A. showed every other institution that courage is more commendable than dithering.”
Egan could certainly have also mentioned women like Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona and “Racey” Lacey O’Neil and their efforts to advance women’s rights and Title IX, as well as everyone from Tom Waddell to Martina Navratilova to Kye Allums to Jason Collins for using sports as a way to break open the closet and provide visibility to the very existence of LGBT athletes.
It’s understandable why someone could look at all of this history, as Tim Egan did, and conclude that sports as an institution is a mighty motor of progressive or even radical change in our society. It is also miles from the truth: a whitewash of history—highly reliant on white savior mythology—that benefits those in power in sports who routinely break their own arms patting themselves on the back, while operating a profoundly backward-looking enterprise.
How can we praise baseball for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line without pointing out that Branch Rickey was the lone vote for integration among his peers, with quotas existing on black players for years thereafter? How can we even praise Branch Rickey, without pointing out how he consciously wrecked the Negro Leagues, the largest national black-owned business in the United States, ruthlessly harvesting its talent without compensation?
As for Muhammad Ali, how can we credit the institution of sports for his undeniable historical contribution when he was, in his prime, perhaps the most hounded, abused and vilified athlete in the history of the game? The man had his title stripped for years, which nearly bankrupted him. This forced Ali to box well into his 30s, absent of his youthful speed, aggravating the head injuries that robbed him of his speech. Women and LGBT athletes also stood up with great courage against an institution that told them to sit down, shut up and stay hidden. Ask Glenn Burke, Josephine D’Angelo and many others about the price of the athletic closet.
Let’s take this discussion out of history and bring it to the present. Yes, Bud Selig and Major League Baseball honor Jackie Robinson every year on their civil rights day. But Bud Selig bathes himself in the history of civil rights as brand enhancement, not as a legacy that needs to be upheld. He has not said a word about Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant laws, even holding the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona despite requests from civil rights organizations for him to pull out. He looked the other way despite Major League Baseball’s overwhelming reliance on Latin American talent and the fact that these players are at risk every time they step into the state.
Yes, Richard Sherman used his NFL platform to speak out against racism. But the NFL as a league has done more to normalize a racial slur and any major institution in the twenty-first-century United States, with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s continual defense of the Washington football team name. Yes, a new generation of athletes is coming out of the closet like Jason Collins and Michael Sam. But as Adam Silver himself said upon Collins’s announcement, it is difficult to celebrate when you consider how behind the sports world has been on this question.
And as for Adam Silver, we have been inundated with articles turning him into the hero and savior of the Sterling story. But once again this is like seeing a historical whitewash take place in real time right in front of our eyes, as the threat of a playoff players’ strike, and the push on corporations to boycott the team, becomes a footnote to the story instead of central to the banning of Donald Sterling.
The true story of sports, progressive politics and radical change is the story of people who are normally marginalized in US society, given a platform and a microphone and at great cost and sacrifice to themselves using that microphone to educate the dominant society about their position in the world. I would ask Timothy Egan to take a more critical look at sports history and to not let their self-congratulatory branding blind him to the truth. As Dr. Harry Edwards wrote in 1968 for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, “We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary.” If anything, looking at sports is a reminder that the true “most progressive force in America” was, and is, the actions of people who put political principle ahead of personal benefit, and have refused to just shut up and play the game.
Read Next: In holding Donald Sterling accountable, there is more to do.