Many columnists throughout the sports world were aghast when the volcanic bigot Rush Limbaugh wanted to be part owner of the St. Louis Rams. Many columnists also praised National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern when he attempted to crack down on players’ conduct. Yet there has been barely a sound as an owner has been exposed as having a racist business practice, with conduct unbecoming of the NBA.
It’s a story that should be leading the sports page and the politics page. Instead it’s being buried. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling just had to pay out, according to the Justice Department, the largest settlement ever obtained by the government in a housing discrimination case involving apartment rentals: $2.73 million.
Sterling has never been the most popular owner among fans or players. Having the most inept franchise in sports will do that. But in this case his crimes extend far beyond the inability to field a decent team. The billionaire who made his money by owning 119 rental properties was accused of racial discrimination in renting them. The suit lays out that Sterling wouldn’t rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown or to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Court testimony claimed that Sterling had said he did not like to rent to Hispanics because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” Witnesses testified that he also said, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
Sterling presents himself as the tony developer of high-end properties in the Hollywood Hills, but he plays it much closer to the street. He has a healthy legal paper trail, which creates a collage portrait of someone very good at extorting rents from the very poor. In 1986 the spiking of rents in his Beverly Hills properties–the so-called slums of Beverly Hills–led to a march on City Hall.
In 2001, as reported by LA Weekly, Sterling was sued successfully by the City of Santa Monica on charges that he harassed and threatened to evict eight tenants living in three rent-controlled buildings. Their unholy offense that drew his ire was having potted plants on balconies. Talk about hands-on. How many billionaires drive around their low-income housing properties to look for violations?
Two years later Sterling was effectively able to evict a tenant for allegedly tearing down notices in a building’s elevator. In 2004 Sterling led a brigade of other landlords to smash Santa Monica’s ultra-strict Tenant Harassment Ordinance. The ordinance stated that issuing repeated eviction threats to tenants was a form of harassment. Sterling and his crew believed that they should be allowed to harass to their hearts’ content.
And in 2005 Sterling settled a housing-discrimination lawsuit filed by the Housing Rights Center, which represented more than a dozen of his tenants. He paid nearly $5 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs–a staggering amount–along with a reportedly massive, but confidential, sum. Not all the plaintiffs, though, lived to see their windfall. LA Weekly quotes court documents that state that on July 12, 2002, “Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.”
Amid everything described above, there is a web of lawsuits and complaints leveled against Sterling that suggest he is willing to suffer endless financial penalty and legal embarrassment if it means he can have control–always control–over who gets to live in his properties. As sports columnist Bomani Jones wrote, “That same man, who gives black men tens of millions of dollars every year, refuses to take a few thousand a month from folks who would like to crash in one of his buildings for a while? You gotta love racism, the only force in the world powerful enough to interfere with money-making. Sterling may have been a joke, but nothing about this is funny. In fact, it’s frightening and disturbing that classic racism like this might still be in play.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern, always so PR-conscious when it comes to where players mingle, how players dress and whom players consort with after hours, has turned a blind eye to this disturbing pattern. Now these chickens have returned to Stern’s back porch to roost. The NFL’s union and players spoke out against Limbaugh. The NBA’s should absolutely do the same. But even that is not enough. Owners are very fond of declaring “eminent domain” when they need to expel residents, bulldoze apartments and build stadiums. NBA fans need to declare eminent domain on Sterling. It was our game before it was ever his. Every fan of conscience needs to get in touch with the commissioner’s office and say that Sterling has got to go.