What to make of Donald Sterling? I’d guess that, like 95%+ of people, he cares far, far more about his personal problems and ego than the state of society. He is rather bizarrely hung up on race, but that doesn’t mean he cares anything at all about white supremacy, or is trying to single-handedly bring it about. His conversation with his girlfriend should be interpreted as a conversation with a girlfriend. In other words, he doesn’t actually care that black people come to his basketball games- black people have come to his basketball games for 30 years, people have been dealing economically with ethnicities they dislike and distrust for thousands or tens of thousands of years. When he says “don’t bring these people to my games,” he means specifically that his girlfriend shouldn’t bring them to games, and he says this because he is a pathetic old man who is jealous of the men his girlfriend hangs out with, especially since, again, a lot of these guys are black and he has weird issues with black people.
All this is sad and pathetic, but has no broader importance. But the media obviously doesn’t see it that way. The media looks at race primarily as a social issue, so they assume Donald Sterling looks at it the same way. Thus, this is Important Issue news, not Celebrity Gossip news. His players and coach feel that it is necessary for their self-respect that they publicly protest and ostracize Sterling- but what exactly is it that they are protesting? How can you publicly protest a guy’s private dysfunctional relationship and internal psychological issues?
“They don’t want to play for a guy who disrespects them.” Nobody cares if the guy who pays them money respects them deep down in his heart. They mostly just care that he pays them. As long as he doesn’t publicly insult them in any way- that’s a different matter. But of course, Sterling didn’t publicly insult black people- he said offensive things privately, and his girlfriend made them public. Nevertheless, it became public. Thus, players and coach saw it as necessary for their own self-respect to pretend they were considering boycotting Game 4 and engage in various other symbolic acts (and got themselves so distracted that they might as well have gone ahead and forfeited Game 4, falling behind by 20 at the half to an inferior team. That opponent’s coach has helpfully suggested a fan boycott of Game 5 when the series returns to L.A.) It was a performance for the public, not a message to the public, let alone to Sterling himself.
But back to the media, and the bloodthirsty demands for action that the commissioner courageously fulfilled. The media are, as I have suggested above, interpreting what they see in light of their own fixations. It is always the erudite, verbose, intellectual types who do this best, as illustrated most famously by Don Quixote. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most grandiloquent expression of this particular madness, the most zealous knights errant reliving past moral glories and tilting at windmills they mistake for Bull Connor, are to be found at that thinking person’s sports website, Grantland.
There you’ll find, for instance, one Rembert Browne talking to former NBA player Wesley Morris about the deeper meaning of it all. They consider what it means for a white people to own teams of black people, and find that it reminds them of slavery. This is of course a simple bit of word play with the word “own,” but they take us into deep waters: “[O]wnership matters because it brings us back to the plantation, the second primal scene of racial conflict in this country…American sports—and especially the NBA—have almost always been about white men owning and trading mostly black men,” and so forth. (It has? Well, it certainly wasn’t before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.) Wesley Matthews felt “owned” because the owners defeated the players in labor struggles, and because of the NBA dress code for players’ press conferences.
They go on and on about “power;” poking sticks at Sterling shows that “open defiance is in the air,” though Sterling “still has the upper hand.” As anyone can see, of course, Sterling’s employees knew perfectly well that they could demonstrate their contempt for him and he couldn’t do anything about it, because he became completely powerless the moment his phone conversation was posted on TMZ. Advertiser boycotts were just sharks circling blood in the water. NBA players swallowed their defeats in labor negotiations, swallowed the “racist” dress code, because the NBA really did have leverage. No such thing here. Social machinery instantly kicked in to ruthlessly punish the views Sterling expressed, as it always does.
Commissioner Adam Silver’s announcement that he is forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers and fining him $2.5 million was merely confirmation of Sterling’s undoing. The Grantland discussion of how he “still has the upper hand” came before this happened. But, for some, this will not prove that Sterling was powerless, but that Silver is highly courageous. According to a San Jose Mercury News reporter, Silver showed himself a “hero,” willing to “stand up for what’s right.” Back at Grantland, one Zach Lowe writes “[The decision Silver faced] wasn’t a gray-area case. It wasn’t an ethical quandry.” Well, of course it wasn’t. What has ethics got to do with it? Silver doesn’t get paid tens of millions of dollars to take bold ethical stances; he gets paid to do things like solve PR problems, preferably as ruthlessly as possible, and he did.
Lowe himself even notes Silver’s response, a very revealing one, to a reporter’s question about the justice of divesting someone of a team over a private conversation that may have been illegally recorded: Silver said that, though Sterling made the remarks in private, “they are now public, and they represent his views.” Justice has nothing to do with it. The remarks “are now public,” not because Sterling made them public, but because his girlfriend made them public. It doesn’t matter. By being public, they become a PR problem, which the league has to overcome through a PR performance.
The “they represent his views” portion of his remark is also revealing. It wouldn’t matter if he never expressed or acted on his views- the fact that someone has certain feelings (specifically, that an 80 year old man has his ego threatened when his girlfriend hangs out with black guys) is something we cannot allow. It is disingenuous; the NBA isn’t institutionally equipped to serve as a Torquemada, and perhaps even the Spanish Inquisition was as much about social control as the saving of souls. Silver cares about what benefits the NBA, not the inner workings of someone’s mind. But it’s interesting that, for PR purposes, he feels it is necessary to pretend to care about such things.
Rembert Brown/Wesley Matthews echoed similar ideas: “Is Sterling just the one who got caught? You have to believe there are others who think just like him. And not just within sports, but everywhere.” But the whole problem is that he got caught! Again, if this weren’t public, there wouldn’t have been the need for all the angst and soul-searching by the players, it wouldn’t be a threat to their self-respect to play for him. Insofar as you want to turn this into a broader social issue of institutional, covert racism (and really, isn’t that the whole point) you’re hoist by your own petard. If there’s all this institutional racism, the public denunciation of overt racism is a mask and a distraction.
In my view, once Sterling’s remarks became public, he had to go. Nobody would play for him, it wouldn’t be fair to the fans, it would be a disaster for the league. Players would get drafted or traded and refuse to work for him, feeling their self-respect was at stake. But all that is only a problem because Sterling’s remarks were public. The zealous need to see him pay, the idea that it matters in some deep way, above all the self-righteous feeling that people get from denunciation, are all unhealthy.