Donald Sterling’s recent, very racist comments, have thrown the NBA into disarray in the midst of an exciting playoff season. There are so many responses to this story ranging from: what the players should do in protest, calls for fans to boycott games at the Staples Center, a focus on a supposed violation of Sterling’s first amendment rights, and an obsession with the motives of Sterling’s girlfriend. However, the sole focus at this point should be on the NBA and its response to this crisis.
This was not the first time that Donald Sterling espoused or did something racist. In fact, he has a long, documented history of racial offences, all of which the NBA was aware of. David Stern, long-time NBA Commissioner who retired in February, has dodged an almighty scandal that is largely of his own doing. Now, his successor Adam Silver, is tasked with cleaning up a mess that he didn’t necessarily create. Why, when Stern and all of Sterling’s owner colleagues knew who he was, are we only now at a point where this is being dealt with? I have to believe that David Stern and his cronies felt that there was too much money to be made without the disturbance of a race scandal.
Stern was no stranger to dealing with race during his time as NBA Commissioner. Navid Farnia at Over The Line has done a superb job of capturing the lengths to which Stern went to “whitewash” the NBA in order to make his league more marketable, or less threatening, to white audiences. His dress code policy, implemented prior to the 2005-2006 season, was an attempt to have the players look decidedly less “thug” and more “businesslike.” It was a direct target at players who fashioned a more urban aesthetic: chains, shorts, indoor sunglasses, T-shirts, jerseys etc. If Stern had to deal with black players, at least he was going to make sure they carried themselves in a more “civilized” manner. The plantation metaphor fits his iron rule of the NBA like a glove. Stern has always been concerned with the "image" of the NBA, which necessitated actions against its mostly black players. Yet, if he were truly concerned, from a moral standpoint, he would have levied sanctions against Sterling when any of his previous transgressions came to light.
When there are so many moving parts to a story, and a multitude of interested parties, it can be difficult to focus on the issues that matter most and hold the right people accountable. Donald Sterling is the obvious choice as far as culpability, but the NBA is his joint defendant in this case for decades of inaction and willingness to do business with all manner of unsavory types, all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Adam Silver may issue a punishment to Sterling tomorrow, and it may satisfy most of the people hurt by this saga. Yet, David Stern is deserving of judgment that he will likely never receive. That is one of the real shames of this story. He fostered a hostile environment toward black culture in his NBA that was in keeping with Donald Sterling’s belief system. David Stern allowed this to happen.
As for Donald Sterling, let’s move past any temptation to feel sorry for him. Regardless of how this current scandal started, we know with certainty, that he is a racist, a bigot, and overall abhorrent human being. And what is the worst that could happen to him? He bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million. Should he be forced to sell the team because of this scandal, he stands to make over $500 million in profit. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers are tied 2-2 with the Golden State Warriors in a best-of-7 first round playoff series. They suffered a blowout in their first game after the scandal broke, and coach Doc Rivers cancelled practice on Monday so that the players could spend time with their families. Who can say how much these players are hurting? How can they put this behind them mentally and carry on with the rest of the series? This is the most immediate reason for Adam Silver to act swiftly and decisively. The NBA needs to move beyond the modus operandi of David Stern and take a stand for its players. It’s also a chance for Adam Silver to make a claim for his NBA, and the type of league he intends to oversee. Forget the league's image, the players need Silver to do the right thing.