Donald Sterling, the aftermath: What do we do now?

Apr 29, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Jerry Carr, Huntington Beach, Calif, asks the NBA players to boycott games in front of Staples Center. The NBA handed down a lifetime ban on Clippers owner Donald Sterling after it was confirmed that he made racist comments captured on a recording by his girlfriend. The Clippers and Warrior play game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

“[Here is] what white Americans do not [wish to] face when they regard a Negro: reality– the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last time.”

— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963.

If you care about sports in any significant way (and if you are reading this blog it is almost certain that you do), you are well aware of Donald Sterling’s private comments made public, the reaction to said comments, and the subsequent “hammer” dropped on him by Adam Silver and the NBA. Many have already done incredible work on this subject. The first person to catch up with if you have not, is Bomani Jones. His interview on the Dan Lebatard show is entirely necessary, as is, this edition of his solo podcast/webcast The Evening Jones. Hardwood Paroxysm’s own Kevin McElroy was forceful and tremendous writing about the satisfaction that mostly cannot be had with Donald Sterling’s punishment. While the always brilliant Curtis Harris has written multiple, important pieces about the Sterling situation, and the owners, more specifically, Mark Cuban’s response.

Clearly, the Sterling story has flooded our basketball world, a world that we believe (often naively so) to be free of the complications of our day to day lived reality. Many of us come here for an escape, not to be reminded of the tragic, broken world that exists outside the beauty that unfolds between lines painted on hardwood. Thus, it is natural to rush to contain this within arenas, owner’s votes, constitutions, franchises, the good of the sport, and Adam Silver’s hammer. It is a lot less messy that way. The conclusions we draw are far less uneasy.

That temptation, to limit this to the area of entertainment, is why we need a continual reminder that this is not a basketball story, this is not a sports story. The more we make this about basketball the more we lose sight of why this matters. The more we talk about what this means for the league, Adam Silver, and its owners the greater disservice we do to what Sterling’s story actually embodies.***

***A disclaimer here: This is not to say that no one should cover what it means for the NBA, or that anyone who reports or writes on it, particularly those that have jobs to do, are detracting from the conversation. However, care must be taken in how we view this event, and through what lens we choose to interpret Donald Sterling: his actions, his legacy, and what his “punishment” actually means.

Certainly, since the employees in this scenario are basketball players, this is to some degree a “basketball story.” But the true nature of the dynamic: the exploitation of black bodies for white profit, is inextricably woven through the constitutional fibers of our history. The context may be new, the players may be wealthy, but the power structure remains disturbingly familiar. “Who makes the league?”, a clear and direct reminder of how Sterling understands the title of “owner.”

Sterling’s view of his players is undoubtedly disgusting, but his history outside of basketball is much more destructive. What movies this beyond basketball, beyond the idea of “half measures”, punishment, or the face of the NBA, is Donald Sterling’s contribution to and perpetuation of a system built to perpetually demean, degrade, and desolate Black America. This should’ve been news years ago. 

Sterling’s failures, and our failure to recognize, and confront not only Sterling himself but more importantly the system of white privilege he represents, stick out like a rotten festering wound. What remains are questions, about how we proceed, how we prevent this from happening again and what we are and aren’t willing to do in the wake of Sterling’s atrocities. The easy and obvious answer is that we must do something, but the details of the something often escape us to the point of paralysis. Even more often, the reality we are confronted with is so bleak–the tragedy of life made so obvious–we can barely stand to face it. So, we turn our backs in hope that it will disappear.

That is a mistake we can ill afford to repeatedly make. Bomani Jones has continually hammered home the most important aspect of this story going forward: We have to find a way to do better. There need to be more conversations about race, racism, and white privilege. The white population (which includes myself) needs to come face to face with its history and the comfort–both conscious and subconscious–in the racial privilege that all white men and women perpetually return to.

This isn’t to say that I have the solution, because I don’t. It is not my responsibility, nor is it your responsibility to provide solutions, but it will be our responsibility to eventually develop them. The development of those solutions will no doubt be a long and arduous process, which makes delaying the start that much more deleterious.

Moving forward, more people need to feel like they have a stake in this problem, because our history and current reality create an undeniable obligation. An obligation that has mostly gone ignored. An obligation so eloquently summarized by James Baldwin over 50 years ago:

“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we– and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of the others– do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”

For those that haven’t and those that have, listen (more), read (more), and speak openly (more). If you don’t feel qualified to speak, educate yourself. Read Michelle Alexander’s startling, essential, and disturbing deconstruction of mass incarceration and its devastating effects on Black America. Educate yourself on “The Ghetto as Public Policy”, on the racism of the New Deal, on the history of lynching, on the big business of Slavery, or resegregation. The list could continue on for many lifetimes, the totality of it is staggering. I think books are best, but there are wonderful writers out there summarizing this in compact, meaningful, highly useful ways(Ta-nehisi Coates being the most obvious name. A writer with such astounding vision and clarity, that his work continues to be nothing short of essential). The information has never been more available; go get it.

Because, if the conversation moving forward doesn’t change, then Donald Sterling and the ugly history he represents will continue its impressive, wholly-unimpeded winning streak. I’m afraid that dominance is something we will continue to tolerate. I’m afraid, that as James Baldwin warned, we will continue to cling to what we believe to be constant, only to be unceremoniously confronted by death, left with nothing but the destruction of our action and inaction.