By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Los Angeles Clippers owners Donald Sterling committed his latest, and perhaps “greatest” deplorable act. His team united, reacted with strength and conducted themselves with a level of dignity undeserved by their owner. Politicians spoke eloquently for the people. Luminaries expressed outrage. The NBA’s new commission, facing his first significant test, issued a heavy-handed but completely justified verdict. Sterling is now exiled, banned from the game of basketball for life, a consequence befitting his hate. His fellow owners have been challenged to evict their colleague from the fraternity, a decision that seems inevitable and appropriate.
And just like that, days after his leaked tape-recorded message demonstrated the power of the information superhighway, Donald Sterling is out of sight. Before he is out of mind, or at least below sports’ headlines, his words demand consideration beyond Los Angeles, the Clippers and the NBA. This wasn’t Sterling’s first foray into the offensive - not even close. His recently recorded and virally broadcasted prejudices simply shined a light so bright on Sterling’s thoughts and belief-system that the dark-hearted owner could no longer be ignored for convenience. Sterling’s girlfriend’s covert work just confirmed what we already knew. It shoved our noses into the stench of doing business with Donald Sterling.
But yet we did. Willingly. Knowingly. For over three decades. Players…African American players…signed to play with the Clippers. Doc Rivers, an African American coach that could have nudged his way into just about any NBA job, agreed to work for Sterling. Corporate sponsors soaked up real estate at…well…Staples Center in Los Angeles and booked marketing campaigns with Sterling’s biggest stars. Fans bought tickets. Clippers stock soared like the Dow Jones since 2009. The NBA was enjoying a boon from a playoff season featuring parody normally reserved for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Five seeds are struggling with 12’s everywhere! Ignoring Sterling’s past was going so well, until…
Until he stepped from behind the curtain and into the spotlight…and, suddenly, we were all terribly offended and demanded nothing short of the complete eradication of this vile human. I feel guilty for not being more educated about Sterling, for not researching Elgin Baylor’s claims from years ago, for thinking of the Clippers as the Cubs of the NBA (lovable, endearing losers) and for purchasing a mess of Danny Manning rookie cards. Had I attended Clippers games, bought jerseys and over-priced area beers, I’d be sick. Good thing I never did. Or did I? Or am I still?
Roughly 2,500 miles from the NBA’s ground zero, ‘Skins owner Daniel Snyder continues to use, market and profit from a racially insensitive nickname. It’s a state of being that’s eerily Clippers-like, prior to “Sterling On Tape.” Snyder’s vehement support of his team’s antiquated handle isn’t perfectly analogous to Sterling’s now obvious racism, but there are parallels – troubling parallels - between the owners, the respective professional sports leagues, players and fans. I have no reason to believe ‘Skins owner Daniel Snyder harbors the hate Sterling exposed, but I have every reason to believe – considering his defiance of those challenging his precious team nickname – that he is similarly insensitive. He is also, like Sterling, arrogant, proud, insulated, disconnected and prone to confounding missteps.
Snyder contends his franchise’s name, one he will “never” change, is a symbol of pride and tradition. Is it, Mr. Snyder? Is that really how fans of the team feel? Saying it…over and over and with increased agitation doesn’t make it true. I would argue that a growing faction of football fans, many of them ‘Skins loyalists, would label the name somewhere between uncomfortable and disgusting. The population that is dwindling includes those using the word in conversation, signing the fight song, wearing team gear or brandishing their cars with ‘Skins adornments without a trace of conscience. That group might already be the minority, no matter what Daniel Snyder says.
For a long time I was lazy about this issue. I ignored the original protestors at Super Bowl XXVI and the slow ground swell since. It was easier that way. It is just football, right? Why does a football team – my team - have to be a catalyst for social growth? Am I really going to have to replace my “Sunday best” attire and tuck away memorabilia? Why can’t I just sink into my couch and mindlessly enjoy the games on Sundays? They are games, I said. They are just games. I’ll block out the noise, refuse to consider the valid but uncomfortable points being made by a muted minority and continue on with my enjoyable relationship with the NFL and the Washington football club.
In 2008, I came to my senses and argued for a name change. But the opinions of fringe sportswriters don’t register with capitalistic cats like Sterling and Snyder and economic juggernauts like the NBA and NFL. What does matter is the business model: television deals, advertisements, apparel sales, corporate sponsorships and the fabulous players that drive the economic machines. If the voices start influencing those financial lifelines and if players express their intolerance of intolerable acts, the men in the plush luxury suites with exotic girlfriends/estranged spouses and massive belt buckles and/or the leagues’ governing entities pay attention.
On the verge of fan-mutiny during the 2009 season, Snyder whacked lame duck head coach Jim Zorn and, more importantly, finally delivered the severed professional head of Vinny Cerrato, his front office puppet, to bloodthirsty fans. Similarly, in 2013, with an angry franchise quarterback and an embarrassingly empty stadium in a late-season home loss to the Chiefs, Snyder rid his organization of Team Shanahan and reset with Little Chucky. The trend: when his financial foundation is threatened, Snyder acts. If an issue isn’t a clear and present financial danger, say…like…a name change, you get commentary from “Defiant Dan” and a heaping serving of the status quo.
Sterling’s egregious words engendered fan outrage, compelled corporate sponsors to flee and inspired Clippers players to consider boycotting games. The situation threatened to overwhelm the NBA playoffs and the league as a whole. The NBA acted, predictably, with swift and maximum force. The “R” word hasn’t become that problematic for the NFL or Daniel Snyder - yet. The stadium remains packed and accessorized with the FedEx label. No major sponsors, to my knowledge, have jettisoned the team or the league. Players have neither vocalized concern with the name nor refused Snyder’s lucrative free agent overtures. Robert Griffin III and DeSean Jackson jerseys are flying off the shelves. Problem? What problem?
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Maybe a little like life with Donald Sterling before the tape recording? Occasional lawsuits, dissenting editorials and political commentary are minor annoyances. They get swatted like flies, rebutted by defiant letters and brushed over by passive commissioners. Until the outrage swells, unites and demands change, until the economic pressure makes the billionaires sweat, they won’t act and the name will remain like Donald Sterling, circa March 2014: a minor inconvenience.
Donald Sterling is bigger than the Clippers, Los Angeles and the NBA. Donald Sterling is a challenge: to Robert Griffin III, to me, to those attending ‘Skins games and anyone feeding the NFL machine. Believe the ‘Skins should change the name? Attack the wallet with overwhelming force or risk being latently offended.
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