WASHINGTON — Donald Sterling, the now banned-for-life owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, accomplished something that might be seen as a political miracle: The racist ranting that led the National Basketball Association to oust Sterling brought President Obama and Senator Ted Cruz together.
“We just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it,” Obama said, “teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why statements like this stand out so much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”
And then Cruz came along on Facebook with five words we never expected to see: “I agree with President Obama.” Cruz, a Texas Republican, called Sterling’s comments “ignorant and offensive” and said his “racist sentiments have utterly no place in our society.”
Well, hurray for that. But before we collectively congratulate ourselves for our shared revulsion over particularly crude forms of racism, consider why the NBA moved so quickly against Sterling.
Let’s face the issue of power.
Sterling could not survive his taped ramblings because he is part of an institution in which African-Americans are, in the most literal sense, the key players — some 76 percent of the members of NBA teams are African-American. In responding to Sterling, the men whose talents draw the audiences demonstrated a form of solidarity that their employers, Sterling’s fellow owners, simply could not ignore.
The timing was propitious. We are in the early stages of the NBA playoffs when the number of Americans watching the pro game rises, when sponsorships are especially lucrative, and when boycott threats (and even just bad publicity) are especially dangerous.
This is when the most celebrated players and coaches — notably the Clippers’ own coach, Doc Rivers — are in the spotlight. If there was ever a circumstance when management could not afford to alienate its stars, this was it.
But the nagging point was the one raised eloquently by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in an essay in Time magazine. Sterling’s racism has never been a secret. Why did it take this episode to force the hand of the NBA leadership and ignite the people in the stands?
Abdul-Jabbar noted that in 2006, the Department of Justice sued Sterling, who got rich in real estate, alleging he had discriminated against blacks, Hispanics and families with children. (Where, by the way, was the pro-family crowd on that one?) Sterling had allegedly said: “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” He reportedly paid $2.73 million to settle the case in 2009. The same year, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager and NBA Hall of Famer, sued Sterling for discrimination on the basis of age and race.
“Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?” Abdul-Jabbar asked. Why, he wanted to know, did it take “this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend” to put us “over the edge?”