Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hanging him out to dry

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was so disturbed by a recent recording of Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend not to bring her black friends to L.A. Clipper games that he placed a lifetime ban on Mr. Sterling and put in motion a plan to force him to sell his basketball team.

Players were so put out by Mr. Sterling's comments that they wore their warm-up jerseys inside-out in order to cover up the team's logo. They wore black socks as part of their protest.

Comments and pundits were beside themselves that a rich white dude would be saying something so outrageous in the 21st century. The local chapter of the NAACP decided not to award Mr. Sterling his second Lifetime Achievement Award after the recording surfaced.

But let's keep in mind that Mr. Sterling's comments were made in a private telephone conversation that was taped by the person at the other end of the phone. Let's keep in mind that he is being castigated for holding personal beliefs that a great majority of us find offensive. He committed no crime. But for the recording no one would ever have known Mr. Sterling's personal biases.

Or maybe they would have if they had been paying attention.

Back in 2009 Mr. Sterling entered into a $2.725 million agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to settle claims that Mr. Sterling discriminated against minorities who lived in apartment buildings he owned. Mr. Sterling would be the first one to say that the agreement was not an admission of guilt but an agreement to settle a dispute in a way that both sides could live with.

Of course $2.725 million is an awful lot of money to plop down to walk away from a nasty lawsuit if there wasn't some ring of truth to the allegations.

The NBA was well aware of the settlement when it happened. Then-commissioner David Stern didn't even raise a finger. And, once Mr. Sterling showed that he was willing to spend some money to attract better players to the city's second basketball team, free agents signed up without regard to the outcome of the housing discrimination litigation.

The NAACP didn't seem to care. Mr. Sterling wrote some big checks and that was enough to give him a plaque or two.

But the settlement of the housing discrimination lawsuit wasn't nearly as sexy as a recording in which Mr. Sterling voiced his bias against black folk. It's much easier to write a headline about what he said than about the settlement of a lawsuit.

For all the eye-rubbing and hand-wringing that accompanied the release of the recording, few people acknowledged that Mr. Sterling's prejudices were far from unknown. The players who signed to play for the Clippers didn't have to look hard to find out their new boss was a bigot. League officials conveniently forgot about the 2009 settlement when it suited their purposes. Why didn't the league try to force Mr. Sterling out years ago?

What does it say to our society that making racist and bigoted comments is crossing some unspoken line while carrying out acts of actual discrimination isn't give a second thought? Is it because those in positions of power and influence would rather move our focus from discriminatory business practices to the rantings of one man? Is it because if we actually acknowledge the discriminatory conduct we would realize that discrimination and racism are integral parts of most business plans?

Just turn whites workers and black workers against each other and the next thing you know there's nobody putting pressure on you to pay a living wage and there's no one to fight against closing a plant and moving production overseas.

Mr. Sterling became expendable when he was turned into the poster boy for racism. Suddenly everyone else could point and wag their fingers and avoid any scrutiny into their own personal and business practices.

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