The NBA’s divorce with Donald Sterling was a long-overdue first step on what will likely be a bumpy road. But for fans, players, team employees, and anyone associated with Los Angeles or the NBA, it was a step worth taking.
Most fans of perennial losers are at least somewhat acquainted with shame. Usually that has to do with blown leads, mangled draft picks, or mismanaged deals. For the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s meant all those things. But it’s also meant something far more sinister: three decades of association with Donald T. Sterling.
To me he’d always seemed like spiders in the garage — you wished they weren’t there, but it wasn’t like you could ever really get rid of them. In the past, rumored bids for the team from the likes of David Geffen didn’t convince him to sell, not when his working business model was to grab every property in sight and hold onto it indefinitely. And years of systemic discrimination and sexism didn’t threaten his standing in the league, not when his team was a perpetual pushover that drafted promising rookies who’d promptly flee for greener pastures in free agency. It seemed like the dude would always be there, wax-faced and smirking, telling bald-faced lies about building a homeless shelter while knowing you couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything about it.
For some context on why, if that were the case, anyone in his or her right mind would cheer for Sterling’s team, I’ll offer this: My Clipper fandom has always been modeled on Major League, where the good players unite to overcome the evil owner. That the Clippers had always been inexorably tied to the most feckless owner in professional sports made them feel, to me, like the world’s most sympathetic underdog. Succeeding in spite of him would therefore be the grandest dream — impossible to happen, but what if it did!
And in recent years, it had begun to seem plausible, as the man had retreated out of the spotlight a bit, seeming largely invisible as far as the team was concerned. He was still evil and toxic, but perhaps he’d settled down in his 80s. He’d been out of the public eye long enough for his GMs to ink some high profile deals and assemble an elite coaching staff, allowing the Clippers to become one of the league’s best entertainment machines. There were moments this year when I thought to myself so many good things are in place for this team; even Donald Sterling can’t screw it up.
But of course he could. Because Sterling had never really left, so the machine was still rotten from the inside.
And after we finally heard the bile spewed straight from his mouth thanks to TMZ, I was forced to reconsider the model for my fandom. Forget the question of whether these players could succeed in spite of the Donald. Why should they ever have had to?
Now that question might be moot. Over the weekend, public outcry on social media snowballed into an avalanche of collective outrage. As Clipperblog colleague Law Murray reminded us Monday, Donald Sterling is someone who likes to control the narrative around him, but obviously that’s no longer possible. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wouldn’t have gone with the nuclear option were it not for those pulled sponsorships and an apparent consensus among fellow owners. And there’s no ad in the Sunday paper big enough to shift public opinion on this matter.
Some caveats. Because of my work history, I’m well acquainted with the pitfalls of technophiles viewing new media as an inherent social good (when in reality, many seemingly disruptive technologies still end up contributing to the ongoing upward transfer of wealth from poor to rich). And Dave D’Alessandro points out that Sterling isn’t the NBA’s only billionaire owner with a questionable moral compass, meaning his removal will inevitably invite questions about the problems of mob justice. Plus, it’s not like the ban on Sterling addresses the systemic issues of race and class that kept him in power for so long. (How could it?) All of which is why it’s healthy to ask whether this whole endeavor was more about brand management than social justice (that “We Are One” statement has fast metamorphosed into an unseemly campaign). But all those caveats aside, these events give us an occasion to consider how bad things can get when we fail to question certain power structures. I’d taken for granted that Sterling would own this team forever; it feels pretty good to think differently.
Now, if there’s one thing billionaires are good at, it’s navigating lawsuits. So it goes without saying that there’s a long road ahead. Let’s just be glad the league is finally willing to start walking — there’s no shame in that.