Monday, May 05, 2014
News exploded with the fireworks of bigotry last week. Somehow, the recorded private conversation of wealthy landlord Donald Sterling with his 49-years-younger mistress got released to the media, revealing some very distasteful, ugly and intolerant vitriol. I don’t know if it was the salacious nature of the primary actors’ relationship, the wealth of the bigot, the fact he owns the L.A. Clippers, or the actual atrocious dialog that earned it world-wide attention, but attention it got. I have a theory. Very few were surprised by Sterling’s prejudice, but it had been ignored for years. These tapes, revealed in the middle of the NBA playoffs — when teams earn the bulk of their income — jeopardized the economy of the league. Players were threatening to boycott the games, sponsors were pulling their money, and fans were protesting. Adam Silver, the first-year NBA Commissioner, had no choice given two facts: Sterling admitted the tapes were authentic and the financial bleeding needed a tourniquet. He issued a quick, decisive response banning Donald Sterling for life and urging the other team owners to vote that he divest himself of the team. Of course, selling his team will make him a tidy profit of $580 to $780 million minus the $2.5 million fine he has to pay for his remarks. So the pain of his ban will be mitigated by his expanding bank account.
This underbelly of bigotry that exists in our society is often overlooked, denied or excused. I would argue those who ignore it are just as complicit as those who speak it. And when both actors have the power to not just exercise free speech but to use that speech to put into place policies that suppress the rights, progress and freedoms of others based on their race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, then bigotry morphs into real racism (or any of the other appropriate –isms). Merriam-Webster defines it as poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race, a definition which goes beyond just thinking people of another race are inferior to your own. Donald Sterling has power to put his viewpoints into practice, which he has shown over the last eight years. In 2006, he was sued for discriminatory housing practices in his rental properties and settled in 2007 by paying out $2.77 million in fines. This was public record and reported in the news, so the NBA can’t say they didn’t know with whom they were dealing. In 2006, ESPN reporter Bomani Jones wrote an article titled, “Donald Sterling’s Racism Should Be News.” Jones’ point was that people focus on the wrong thing. While the opinions Sterling expressed are repugnant, they are merely opinions, which is probably why everyone turned a deaf ear. However, Jones stressed that Sterling has the power to put his opinions into action. He has been in a position to deny decent housing to Blacks, Latinos and families with children. The power to block housing for minority families prevents them from living in neighborhoods with good schools, safety and pride. Forced to take lesser options, these families are held back from opportunities in which they have the economic ability, but not the freedom, to enjoy. The old argument of “there goes the neighborhood” taints the efforts of families to improve their circumstances, and Donald Sterling has the power to insure that continues.
By brushing aside Sterling as merely a socially ignorant man, the NBA also allowed Sterling to exercise his bigoted power in the league. Evidence that his policies hurt people associated with the team can be found in the number of staff that quit, unable to work under his vitriolic points of view, the players who operated under a cloud of prejudice and disrespect, and in Elgin Baylor, the 22-year general manager of the Clippers, who filed suit in 2009 against Sterling for discrimination and wrongful termination on the basis of age and race. He lost the case in 2011. The racial discrimination portion of the case was dropped prior to it going to court. Nevertheless, Baylor said during the trial that Sterling embraced "a Southern plantation-type structure" (supported by Sterling’s own words in the tapes – “I support [the players] and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.” — a stance slave owners took to show their “benevolence”). Allegations of racism were levied against Sterling in the trial, many involving former Clippers players. Putting it all in context, there are certain conclusions that can be drawn. In 2008-09, the team went 19-63, so Sterling’s team was no threat to the economics of the NBA. There was no reason to act. As long as everything that happened within the league was quiet and unobtrusive, the NBA wouldn’t rock the boat. However, the “morals clause” of Article 35(A), titled, “Misconduct of Persons other than Players” subsection (d) allows the Commissioner to suspend or fine an owner for being found guilty of conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA existed then as did Sterling’s overt and verbal racism. The only thing that has changed is that this recent audio revelation comes during the playoffs, when teams make the bulk of their income, and sponsors were pulling out rapidly. “Doing the right thing” was probably as much driven by economics as by honor. That makes the NBA a partner in how the offensive behaviors grew and ultimately exploded. Had they put Donald Sterling’s feet to the fire in 2007, his behavior would have been addressed without possibly the grave consequences both for the league and for Sterling that ensued last week. Even more importantly, the league would have taken a strong public stance against racism expressed both inside and outside the NBA — showing that intolerance would never be tolerated. That message would have been far more powerful than anything implemented recently when, frankly, the commissioner really had no other choice. Rather than an act of standing up against racism, this was more an act of bending to pressure.
For our children, I’m happy that justice was meted out to this man for his attitudes that reflect badly on the sport he represents. Our kids need to see that in this era of quick, knee-jerk Twitter, Instagram and Facebook comments, words have the power to hurt and the power to destroy. Kids who express hate-filled language need to experience consequences just as they would for physical actions. People who recite, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” as a deflection from their actions have probably never experienced the unrelenting barrage of prejudice that so many of our young people endure day in and day out, targeting their race, religion, appearance, sexual preferences, disabilities and even gender. Like verbal water torture, the constant drip, drip, drip of words pierce our children’s self-esteem, sense of safety and happiness. Unfortunately, unless a kid snaps and uses a real weapon to heap physical retaliation on the word warriors, this problem gets little attention.
My sons are African-American and Hispanic. They constantly face some type of prejudice or disrespect for their race. It can be as subtle as being ignored when in line to pay for something or as overt as hate language spewed at them. Something as simple as marking their race in official forms can’t be completed because, although being born to an African-American father and a Latina mother, there is no box for 50/50, an insult to their pride in being representative of two minorities. In middle school, Robbie was subjected to a daily rant on his bus ride to and from school from a kid calling him every hateful racial slur in the book. This went on for more than a year despite repeated complaints to the principal. One day, in the locker room after his physical education class, this kid’s shoe was resting in front of Robbie, so he asked him to give it to him with the phrase, “Hey N…., give me my shoe.” Robbie obliged by throwing it at him and they ended up wrestling on the locker room floor. For this episode, Robbie got suspended for two days and the kid got no punishment. In a conversation with the principal, he explained that Robbie started it by throwing the shoe, and that “I love black people. I have black friends. This has nothing to do with Robbie being black.” Only he was wrong. It had everything to do with Robbie’s race and with this kid’s unfettered autonomy to constantly denigrate Robbie’s race. I never advocate physical retaliation, but I also don’t condone tacitly supporting hate speech by ignoring it. Both boys deserved suspensions.
On the field, our sons have been verbally assaulted by players using the boys’ race as a way to provoke them. We have always told the boys that people love to latch onto what they perceive to be the warts of others, so our sons can’t use race as an excuse for failure. Still, suffering the racial barbs flung at them, rarely as Nietzsche would argue, make them stronger. It’s just a beat down on their psychological well-being. Hate language is too often the armor with which people enter the battle of life, hoping to deflect criticism from themselves by dishing it out first. What really gets my blood boiling is not just that players and fans use bigotry to make a point, but that they aren’t called out for it. Those of us not directly affected by that type of language don’t have the empathy to understand how overwhelmingly defeating it can be. Imagine that someone angrily and publicly belittles you for something in your appearance. If you woke up every morning knowing you were going to regularly hear “What a fat cow you are,” “Hey big nose,” or “No one can see you, you little shrimp,” you’d cringe going out in public. Language can wound us deeply.
While I’m glad Donald Sterling got caught and reprimanded for his opinions, parents need to understand that his behavior is only the tiniest sliver of the tip of a giant iceberg. If we just focus on professional sports, here’s a taste of what has happened in the recent past. During a game last week between Villarreal and Barcelona, the latter’s Brazilian defender, Dani Alves, who is black, got pelted by a banana thrown by a Villarreal youth club coach. Wayne Simmonds, an African-American player for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, also had a banana thrown at him during a game in London, Ontario and during the 2012 lockout when NHL players went to Europe to play he had racial taunts aimed at him by fans in the Czech Republic. Jonathan Martin resigned from the Miami Dolphins after an unrelenting harassment of racially charged texts from teammate Richie Incognito. The fan club of the Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) soccer team has demanded that there be no black or gay players on the team while disturbingly the managers remain silent in rebuking their requests.
When it comes to our children, prejudice in the hands of powerful people can have similar effects on a smaller scale. If bigoted coaches won’t give players field time, or silently tolerate prejudicially charged comments from teammates, opponents and parents, or express prejudice themselves, they have the power to take away the dreams and joy of players. They also condone an environment where our children believe hate language to be acceptable. As parents who don’t want our children to be either victims or abusers, we need to call the purveyors of hate talk to task. Robbie’s college soccer coach was eventually fired for his continued racial slurs, but it took months of documentation, protest and several players quitting the team, including Robbie, before the athletic director took action. Even then, the school argued that his firing was for NCAA violations and not for his hate speech. Why are we so afraid to confront prejudice and to punish those in positions of power who exercise it? While every accused person deserves a fair chance to defend themselves against charges of discrimination, that moment of defense should come with the first complaints, not months or even years later. And every charge should be investigated and taken seriously.
The positive of the Sterling incident is that it forced a public discussion about prejudice. I know plenty of bigots, and I do my best to address their opinions. But anyone who has the power to act on their bigotry carries a bigger, scarier stick. The very definition of a racist is someone who has the power to subjugate another due to their race. Donald Sterling fits that description and actually has used his intolerance as a weapon. But I would also argue that the NBA likewise borders on racism by tolerating his behavior for at least eight years and quietly sweeping it under the carpet. They allowed Sterling to exercise his viewpoint in the running of his team and to represent the NBA in his public dealings. If nothing else, by speaking up, parents will show our children how to handle bigotry. That’s the lesson I hope comes from this event — when we tolerate hate speech we empower the speaker.