Sterling and the issue of power
WASHINGTON — Donald Sterling, the now banned-for-life owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, accomplished something that might be seen as a political miracle: The racist ranting that led the National Basketball Association to oust Sterling brought President Obama and Sen. Ted Cruz together.
“We just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it,” Obama said, “teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why statements like this stand out so much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”
And then Cruz came along on Facebook with five words we never expected to see: “I agree with President Obama.” Cruz, a Texas Republican, called Sterling’s comments “ignorant and offensive” and said his “racist sentiments have utterly no place in our society.”
Well, hurray for that. But before we collectively congratulate ourselves for our shared revulsion over particularly crude forms of racism, consider why the NBA moved so quickly against Sterling.
Let’s face the issue of power.
Sterling could not survive his taped ramblings because he is part of an institution in which African-Americans are, in the most literal sense, the key players — some 76 percent of the members of NBA teams are African-American. In responding to Sterling, the men whose talents draw the audiences demonstrated a form of solidarity that their employers, Sterling’s fellow owners, simply could not ignore.
The timing was propitious. We are in the early stages of the NBA playoffs when the number of Americans watching the pro game rises, when sponsorships are especially lucrative, and when boycott threats (and even just bad publicity) are especially dangerous.
This is when the most celebrated players and coaches — notably the Clippers’ own coach, Doc Rivers — are in the spotlight. If there was ever a circumstance when management could not afford to alienate its stars, this was it.
But the nagging point was the one raised eloquently by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in an essay in Time magazine. Sterling’s racism has never been a secret. Why did it take this episode to force the hand of the NBA leadership and ignite the people in the stands?
Abdul-Jabbar noted that in 2006, the Department of Justice sued Sterling, who got rich in real estate, alleging he had discriminated against blacks, Hispanics and families with children. (Where, by the way, was the pro-family crowd on that one?) Sterling had allegedly said: “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” He reportedly paid $2.73 million to settle the case in 2009. The same year, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager and NBA hall of famer, sued Sterling for discrimination on the basis of age and race.
“Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?” Abdul-Jabbar asked. Why, he wanted to know, did it take “this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend” to put us “over the edge?”
The questions, alas, answer themselves. Baylor was isolated in making his charges. Wealthy team owners don’t get into the business dealings of their wealthy colleagues. The Clippers were a sad-sack team back then — in the 2008-09 season, they went 19-63. Sterling posed no danger to the playoffs. And would-be tenants don’t have the power that NBA stars do.
It’s an instructive accident that on the day Sterling was bounced, Judge Lynn Adelman of the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee delivered a careful, comprehensive 90-page ruling tossing out Wisconsin’s voter ID law. In language more reserved than I am about to use, Adelman’s painstaking analysis concluded that the actual fraud is the idea that voter impersonation at the polls is a problem. It’s not.
“It is absolutely clear,” the judge wrote, that the law “will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” The main result of voter ID requirements is to erect barriers between lower-income voters, who are disproportionately members of minority groups, and the ballot box.
Voter ID, in other words, takes straight aim at Americans whose clout in our political system is already limited, and tries to reduce it further.
The NBA players showed how possessing real power can bring about change within a few media cycles. Their voices would be welcomed by those trying to stop efforts to rob rank-and-file African-Americans and others with low incomes of democracy’s most fundamental right.
It’s nice that Obama, Cruz and almost all of the rest of us want to ostracize an 80-year-old racist blowhard. But how do we act when the playoffs are over and the people who are protesting are not the heroes whose numbers we proudly wear on our backs?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: EJDionne.