Sometimes in the wake of untoward events, it's the smallest gestures that make the biggest difference. Other times, it seems, a grand gesture may be necessary. Yes, this is about racism. No, this isn't just about getting Donald Sterling out of the NBA.
This is an interesting time in all sports to look at the impact of racism, from the NBA issues to recurring instances in the world of international football to lingering thoughts about social change in both Major League Baseball and the National Football League. So, no, this isn't just about Sterling's recent comments, but those comments can serve as a catalyst for a much bigger conversation, and afford all of us in sports the opportunity to reflect and react.
It means a lot that people, such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan, have publicly admonished the comments reportedly made by Sterling about not wanting his then-girlfriend to bring black people to Los Angeles Clippers games. The league needs its leaders—past and present—to be united against any form of hatred and bigotry, especially when it comes from one of its owners.
Magic Johnson saying he will never go to a Clippers game as long as Sterling is the owner means a lot too. The most important basketball figure in Los Angeles in the last 40 years publicly denouncing Sterling is a very big deal.
Of course, it's quite a bigger deal that rumors almost instantly spread suggesting Johnson and Guggenheim Partners, the business group he works with, are interested in buying the Clippers from Sterling, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. That would fall under the grandest of gestures.
Immediately after TMZ published the recording, people suggested the Clippers should have boycotted Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, refusing to work for Sterling one more day. For what it's worth, I suggested something similar, though I think the team should wait until after the playoffs to take a formal stand by deserting their owner.
(Their owner. I heard TNT's David Aldridge refer to Sterling as "Doc Rivers' owner and boss" this weekend in a TV report, and it gave me chills. Certainly, that comment wasn't an attempt by Aldridge—nor me in the paragraph that preceded this—at making a backhanded racial connection to property and ownership. But hearing it this weekend, and myself writing it just now, suddenly seems odd.)
The Clippers players chose not to boycott but did make a small gesture of defiance.
Before the game, the Clippers players removed their warmup tops with the Clippers name and dropped them at center court, continuing the pregame preparation with inside-out red T-shirts, making the statement they were there playing for each other, not the man who signs their checks.
The bigger gestures have come from the Clippers' sponsors, who are suddenly piling on top of each other to get away from Sterling as fast as possible.
State Farm—of Chris and Cliff Paul fame—said it's "taking a pause" in its relationship with the Clippers, via The Washington Post. Then, CarMax announced just before noon Monday that it is pulling out of sponsoring the team.
"I'm telling the brands, 'Let's pull sponsorship,' starting with State Farm," said Steve Stoute, CEO of marketing firm Translation, which counts State Farm as a client, via Mediaite.com. "When you have things like this taking place, somebody has to stand up."
The NBA itself may be the next to stand up, as the league announced it will hold a second press conference Tuesday to make an announcement about the investigation into Sterling.
Some people want Sterling suspended, which would be a mighty grand gesture by the NBA. But what does suspending an owner really do, especially one who has already conceded basketball decision-making to those within the organization? Can the NBA ban Sterling from signing the team's checks?
It could, within the bylaws of the league, fine Sterling for his comments, but what does a nominal fine mean to an old billionaire? Nothing. A fine would be akin to the NBA flipping its shirt inside-out. The NBA needs to make a far grander gesture than that.
It's interesting how the tide of this story has begun to turn. First came the initial indignation that anyone in a position of power in the NBA would say such a monstrously horrific thing.
Next came the legal wrangling of what can and cannot be done to an owner after an audiotape surfaced that was almost certainly recorded illegally.
Now has come the "told you so" crowd wondering why this is suddenly a big deal in NBA circles when Sterling has a long and storied history of racism.
It is a big deal now because it is a sports story now. Professional sports owners are insanely rich, and most of their collective fortunes were procured by means other than owning a sports franchise. This weekend produced an interesting look at the world of NBA ownership, also serving as a giant "told you so" from The Star-Ledger columnist Dave D'Alessandro:
So, better late than never, we go to the torches and pitchforks. Donald has everyone fired up just by being the despicable human being that he is, so expect Silver to punish him for, essentially, free speech. He has the authority to do that within the framework of the NBA constitution—because, you know, Sterling’s latest behavior isn’t in the best interests of the league.
It's sad that it took this long, but the fact remains that once the racism became a basketball issue, the league would have to deal with it. I no longer eat at Chick-fil-A because of personal differences with those who run the company, but my neighbor still goes because the chicken is freaking delicious, and it's not his battle to fight.
Sure, the rest of the NBA owners, players and fans should have taken a stand against Sterling years ago when charges of racism, sexism, ageism and general awfulism—if that is indeed an -ism—first arose. But now it's a basketball story. Now it's in their house, so there is a difference.
The gestures—both big and small—do matter more this time.
Which leads to a greater point of what we can do in sports, all sports, to, once and for all, eradicate any specter of racism. Can we ban all the racists? Probably not. But we can fight the battles more vigorously when they are there to be fought.
For example, if I posed a trivia question four days ago that I would be writing a story about a professional sports team owner with the initials D.S. in hot water over controversy involving race, would anyone have even thought it was going to be about Sterling?
This particular saga is not about Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, but it sure as heck could be.
While Snyder is probably far too savvy to be caught on a recording saying anything remotely close to what Sterling said on the one released this weekend, there are racist dots to be connected between trying to oust an owner for not wanting blacks in his arena and going after one who refuses to change the name of his franchise despite repeated claims that the name and logo are culturally insensitive.
Is one form of in-sports racism really that much different from another?
Sterling doesn't want blacks in his arena. Snyder insists his name is a tradition worth keeping because only one in every five Americans thinks his franchise should change its name.
What's the opinion of 40 million people matter much, anyway? That's about how many people think the Redskins should change their name. It's also, coincidentally, just about the exact number of black or African-American people in America, according to the U.S. Census. Weird.
With that in mind, I wondered how big this Sterling story would be if it happened in the NFL, clearly the top dog in terms of American sports today. How would the NFL players have handled one of their owners saying what Sterling said?
I reached out to NFLPA executive George Atallah, who said the organization has not formally addressed the Sterling issue with the NFL players, but they "often talk to them of the power of showing solidarity." Atallah continued, via email:
When it comes to social and political issues of injustice, the camera always turns to the athletes to "take a stand." Part of that is because the camera is always fixated on them and because we have this expectation as fans that they'll do the right thing off the field in the same way they do on the field. It's why we watch sports.
Real change is forced when parties with real power—in Sterling's case other NBA owners and team/league sponsors—take a stand and do something. Athletes have power, yes, but it is an unfair and unrealistic expectation that they alone can solve these issues. We can have all the campaigns against racism and all the symbolic gestures to end injustice, but there has to be leverage to influence change.
Little gestures can lead to big gestures. Big gestures can lead to change.
Let's not be naive enough to suggest this is just an issue for the NBA or NFL. The Cleveland Indians still wear Chief Wahoo on their uniforms, a trademarked image that makes the Redskins logo look downright respectful to Native Americans. And while we are focusing primarily on American sports when it comes to this type of racism, the biggest global story of racism in sports this weekend may not have even been Sterling's comments.
On Sunday, during a clash with Villarreal, Barcelona defender Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him—something that happens far too often in European footballing venues these days—and rather than ignore it, Alves did one better. He ate that banana.
In one bite—one small gesture—Alves did more to quash racism in sports than anyone could have imagined.
See, racism in sports is a bigger story than just Donald Sterling or one horrible rant on a secretly taped recording.
Racism in sports crosses global boundaries. And while the gesture by the Clippers team and Alves' amazing moment of clarity sent strong messages, the fight, as Attalah suggested, needs to come from more than just the players. It needs to come from those in charge of the money.
The sponsors have begun to speak out against Sterling, and soon, the other NBA owners will be forced to as well. How long before those with the money start to look elsewhere? We don't need any more "told you so" moments when it comes to racism in sports.
There is no gesture too big or small when working toward social change.
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