Saturday, April 26, 2014

How the Clippers and the NBA Should React to Donald Sterling's Most Recent Racist Outburst

Donald Sterling is well-known for his outlandish remarks, largely unsuccessful stint as owner of the Clippers, and not-so-subtle racism. He's been sued in federal court for it and he's been caught on tape and on camera saying some pretty outlandish things. He even was sued by Elgin Baylor for asking prospective coaching candidates how they think they'd be able to "coach these N***ers?"

Here's his latest transgression:

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While Sterling holds back on some of the more virulent racism that may or may not be going through his head during the conversation, he very clearly exhibits the type of "plantation owner" mentality that has unfortunately plagued professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL for years. This, along with Dan Gilbert's 2010 Summer rant against LeBron (which is a less clear example of racism, and a more clear example of an arrogant man who has often demanded a higher platform when he speaks in public), are unfortunate reminders of the omnipresent specter of race-related issues in sports and society today. The idea that Sterling conveys to this woman on the phone--that it's OK for him to associate with these people because they work for him and ostensibly make him money, but not for her  to so because she is a "delicate woman" is problematic on many levels including but not at all limited to the following:

1. Blatant sexism  - "delicate woman," telling her who she can and can't be seen with or photographed with

2. Acknowledgement of his friends' racism - whoever tipped him off to the picture clearly was just as racist and may have triggered this reaction on the part of Sterling

2. Plantation mentality - it's OK to smile and shake hands with Magic Johnson and cheer for his non-white players and coaches because it's all part of a money-making enterprise over which he (thinks he) has total control

4. Subtle implication of the "Dangerous Minority Other"- by framing his girlfriend as the "delicate woman" and dictating her behavior, he juxtaposes that imagery with that of an over-aggressive, untrustworthy, dangerous, and/or violent minority (in this case, a black man)

Everyone has recognized him as the worst owner in the NBA for quite some time, but no one has done anything about it because the narrative has always taken the shape of "Sterling hasn't producde a winning team more than twice in the past 30 years" rather than "Sterling thinks of himself like a plantation owner." However, quietly, everyone in the upper echelons of the NBA has recognized him as the racist he truly is.

Frankly, there's nothing much they really could have done about it besides send him official warning letters or small (relative to his $1.9b net worth) fines much like employees' minor infractions are dealt with by companies. However, this isn't the case anymore in the era where players are fined for every little behavioral infraction, on and off the court. The NFL (and the Eagles) fined and suspended Riley Cooper for his comments, which weren't nearly as hateful as Donald Sterling's pervasive racism. Cooper was outcasted (at least temporarily) by his team, and other teams relished the chance to hit him (which you can't really do in the NBA unless you are Josh McRoberts or Nene) and it was at least somewhat of a teachable moment. Under David Stern's leadership, Sterling has enjoyed a type of "ownership immunity" that not even coaches, GMs and other front-office staff, and certainly players have enjoyed. It's almost like he's in the CIA, but hiding under the blanket of "diplomatic immunity."

While I think that some of the NBA's (and NFL's) policing of the personal lives of its players (except when it involves serious allegations of criminality) is an overstepping of its authority, it's warranted in many cases. It's especially warranted because these conduct policies are codified in the leagues' respective collective bargaining agreements, and so both sides have agreed that it is reasonable and bargained for it to some extent.

However, this situation is particularly poignant because it doesn't just involve some random racist remark (which would still be deplorable, of course,) but it involves Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson has been an ambassador for the game, and is responsible in large part for the huge growth in popularity of the league (and thus, by extension, the owners' fortunes to the extent that they run their teams as profitable businesses). For an NBA owner to tell his girlfriend (or paramour, if you're feeling particularly NSFW Game of Thrones-ish) to not bring Magic Johnson (or any other minorities) is absolutely a relevant and disciplinable offense in the NBA.

However, Adam Silver (as representative of the owners' and thus partially as representative of Sterling) is put in a strange position here. This will be the first major crisis of his tenure as commissioner, and I'm sure he will be in close consultation with David Stern about what he should do. His range of actions is fairly limited, but he should still take them. Then, he should facilitate or at very least rely on the groundswell of anti-Sterling sentiment that will undoubtedly arise across the league and try to push Sterling out of the league. Whatever the punishment should be, it should be a fine levied directly on Sterling, and not a punishment on the players (i.e., forfeiture of future draft picks, etc.)

While we might ask players to take a stand---and I'm sure some high profile players will---it's a very difficult position to put them in for them to be asked to boycott (lose money), forfeit (lose money and set back their basketball careers), not want to play for the Clippers (which would either make turn the Clippers into a team of non-minorities willing to tolerate Sterling's racism, and also make basketball players have less opportunities by limiting the already limited amount of roster spots available - i.e. jobs), or make a symbolic gesture against their owner and boss (risking contract extensions for anyone but the biggest star players). However, the high-profile players, like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan can and should organize a symbolic action in defiance of Donald Sterling to encourage the groundswell of popular opinion necessary to force Sterling to publicly apologize, step down, sell, or some other appropriate course of action.

Chris Paul is in a unique position as leader of the players association, but it's unfair for him to have to focus on something like this in the midst of an important playoff series. However, those are the realities of life. Despite the bad blood between the Clippers and Warriors, I'm sure that Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, and their respective players would be more than happy to cooperate to denounce Sterling's action by doing something like delaying the start of the game, wearing anti-racism patches or insignias on their jerseys, or demanding a public apology from Sterling in order for the game to begin. If both teams were to cooperate on something like this, it would force the league to do something. And, in order to protect the image and profitability of the league, they would certainly do whatever they had to do to Sterling in order to make this awesome playoff series go on. The winner of the other side of the bracket needs an opponent, and they aren't just going to let them go on with a bye if these two teams refuse to play.

Some options are as follows for the players/coaches, and should be led and organized by the prominent players: 

1. Immediately file a (possibly, class-action) employment discrimination lawsuit on behalf of the NBA Players Association against Donald Sterling for creating a hostile work environment and a litany of other offenses. This wouldn't require much effort from Chris Paul and he could have legal counsel do it all, file something preliminary for the signaling effect, and continue pursuing the litigation after the playoffs. The NBA should also be named as a defendant in this lawsuit in order to force their hand.

While I haven't dug into the mechanics of how this would go down, I'm almost certain that it could happen in at least some productive fashion. At very least, it's a legal strategy that forces the NBA to take action on what it should have taken action on decades ago. Any kind of retaliation (not extending contracts, defaming them, docking them pay) by Sterling against players would be a serious violation of employment discrimination law. (An interesting thing to note, depending on how this recording was actually obtained, is its admissibility as evidence in a court proceeding.

This evidentiary issue would be a non-issue if Sterling tries to issue some kind of public acknowledgement and/or apology, which I'm sure his PR people and the rest of the Clippers organization will highly recommend he do...better consult with counsel about that first, Donald.) It's also possible that the CBA prevents such a suit, but there are almost certainly ways around that, and the CBA probably includes an arbitration clause under which Sterling would almost certainly lose in front of a neutral arbitrator. The CBA, however, might not apply if there is some kind of antitrust related action or really weird incarnation of a shareholder derivative suit or fiduciary duty suit initiated the rest of the owners of the NBA. It's pretty uncharted territory because of the "acceptable monopoly" status of major sports leagues in the United States and the associate anti-trust exemptions, to say the least, but it should definitely be tested. Sterling would almost certainly countersue claiming anti-trust violations, but it wouldn't seem like he'd have much sympathy from any judge, jury, or the public. The suit and the publicity would probably have such a negative spillover effect on his other business ventures that he'd voluntarily settle.

2. Engage in multiple symbolic gestures against Sterling, organized by players and coaches from both teams. Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson have the media clout, respect, and personality to be able to pull this type of thing off. Symbolic gestures would include: delaying the start of the game, refusing to take the floor until a public apology (in the arena) was issued by Sterling (should he choose to attend the game), wearing anti-racism patches on their jerseys, and wearing a symbolic article of clothing or accessory. If both coaches could wear something like this, or players/coaches could give a speech to the crowd before a game, that would also be highly public and highly effective. This might be an area where the NBA can look to the anti-racism campaigns of European soccer teams for some inspiration.

Also, I'm sure there are owners out there like Mark Cuban that can come out and denounce Sterling and demand action. I'm sure there are already a couple who have (or at least, I hope that is the case). Billionaires, as you can see, aren't scared of voicing their opinions loudly and publicly. Guys like Cuban are great for the NBA because they'll tell it like it is. Time to lead the charge, Mark.

It sucks that Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Doc Rivers, Magic Johnson, and other guys are in this super awkward position, but there couldn't be a more likable and accomplished group to lead the charge against Sterling.

Griffin, an affable superhero, and his sidekick should take action immediately. Having the team collectively "do the Blake face" to show their disapproval for Sterling would be hilarious, but not enough.

While Blake and Chris are busy with the playoffs, maybe they can enlist Cliff for an assist, "inspire a new generation of that can't deny the power of an assist, and truly get us to a better state." (Note: this isn't intended to be a Kia or State Farm ad...just a relevant, and kind of stupid joke to demonstrate the media power of guys like Griffin and Paul.)

Update: Doc Rivers' reaction is totally expected and understandable because Sterling's behavior shouldn't get in the way of these players and coaches' aspirations. However, there's still room for some symbolic behavior that will go a long way. DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers have done a good job in sending the message that this isn't OK, and won't be tolerated. But, there's still much more to be done. A show of solidarity from Mark Jackson and the Warriors organizations would be terrific to see. Others players have stepped up as well, and should be commended for it. Kobe would be a great person to lead the charge to kick Sterling out of Staples once and for all - Kobe is very poised, intelligent, and immensely respected. He also happens to be able to lay claim to the shared Staples Center as "his house" (continuing the legacies of several incredible Lakers teams before hime, including Magic's Showtime Lakers) without pissing too many people off.

LeBron, as the best player and highest profile player in the league, said there's no room for Donald Sterling or people like him in the NBA. Pretty strong condemnation in a sea of fairly tepid and measured reactions today:

See Doc's comments here (because I imagine the team will not be commenting as Doc explains):