Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is generally not a well liked man. In fact, many would say he’s loathed. His missteps in action and reputation have stained a franchise for over 33 years. It hasn’t affected him much — Sterling has always maintained a healthy profit margin while taking advantage of the protection the league and its owners afforded to him.
This purported incident with V. Stiviano, as reported by TMZ, pales in comparison to the other sordid events documented about Sterling. Consequences have already begun for his alleged actions, first being his absence from Game 4. But it’s important to realize that people who are associated with the Clippers are not in the same line of guilt as Sterling.
Donald Sterling represents the Clippers in a leadership capacity. However, he and his character should not be looked at as representative of all of those individuals that have a role within the organization, nor should those individuals feel obligated to defend themselves in being employed by a man of insensitive values.
Which brings up Sterling himself, and his lack of understanding. His alleged words speak to a bigger problem in what he refers to as “living in a culture.” Sterling purportedly expressed to his mixed girlfriend that there are certain roles, certain ideals, in which there is freedom to do what you want, but one must remain beholden to the power of perception at the same time. Sterling believes he is doing the right thing in his role. He is encouraged by organizations such as the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, who honored him in 2009 and were set to honor him again in May. Sterling knows Magic Johnson from his relationship with Dr. Jerry Buss, but it is an affront if any activity crosses the line of his control.
It is time that Sterling, and the NBA, adjust and understand the culture they are a part of. Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but the NBA is part of a culture that unites individuals of all colors and ethnicities and nationalities, particularly the youth. The NBA is perhaps the most urban of the major professional sports leagues in the United States. Yes, it is a mostly black league, as Charles Barkley mentioned Saturday, but being black is only a part of the culture. This is more than a discussion of racism. This is about power, control, sexuality, gender roles and public image in an elevated and evolved society.
In the clip released by Deadspin, Sterling allegedly asks Stiviano, rhetorically, “Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do [the players] make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?” It suggests that Sterling believes the other owners in the NBA have the same “rights” he does in terms of the power that comes with the ability to cut checks. It is reminiscent of the “40 million dollar slaves” quote associated with former Knicks forward Larry Johnson, which inspired William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book of the same title. It is reminiscent of Hall-of-Famer and former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor’s comments in 2009 where he mentioned Sterling’s vision for a “Southern plantation-style structure.” While Sterling doesn’t want to be associated with racism, he also allegedly, “doesn’t want to change the culture.” And as far as Stiviano goes, Sterling deems her replaceable: “I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want!”
The irony of Donald Sterling acknowledging this woman’s Instagram is that he loves the attention that he can control. Sterling has always wanted to be viewed upon in a positive light. The Clippers released a statement Saturday saying, “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings.” It isn’t consistent because he didn’t control the message. Sterling isn’t Mark Cuban. He’s a lawyer and real estate slumlord who changed his surname for image purposes. He only participates in public settings that cater to him, like lottery parties and recognitions of his charities. He once told Sports Illustrated in 1987, “I have nothing to say to the media … Everything I say to you is off the record. I don’t have a low profile, I have no profile.” And in recent years, Sterling has kept a relatively low profile. Maybe his past misdeeds escaped the outrage it deserved, but in a form of poetic justice, the tirade to not get calls for things being broadcast on social media have been broadcast in a way it never has before.
It is the NBA’s turn to try and control the message. The owners have changed, none more prominent than the passing of Dr. Buss, who became the Lakers owner in 1979 with financial assistance from Sterling. The commissioner has changed, as Adam Silver has acknowledged the unfairness that the Clippers face during this postseason. Silver has made a name for himself by being open about the progression of the NBA. He’s mentioned the imperfect system of the draft and the regular season schedule and the playoffs. If Major League Baseball can disown Marge Schott, the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, then the NBA can take a step towards real progress and make a statement with Sterling. It’s hard to see how the league forces Sterling out, but frankly, I am more concerned with how long it will take for his fellow owners to disown him more than the volume of a sanction.
It’s not just about how people view the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s not about relieving the players, coaches or fans of that team. It is not about crime and punishment. It is about redefining the culture of the NBA and valuing all of the people who invest their time and energy into it worldwide. It is naive to think that Sterling is the only one who carries such an evil mentality, but he definitely represents it. The consequence of further ignorance goes beyond the image of the Clippers — it tarnishes the future of the NBA.