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Keith Strudler: NBA Bans Clippers Owner

Adam Silver looked about as comfortable as a kid during his Bar Mitzvah. But for Silver, there would be no party at the end or a stack of checks to build his college fund. Just a room full of questions from hungry journalists, any of whom could ask the question that submarined Silver’s legacy before he’s even bought his own office furniture. The stakes were as high as they could be for a league that thrives on dramatic finishes. And Silver was all alone with the ball in his hands.

That’s how the world experienced Silver’s rendering of Donald Sterling’s punishment during yesterday’s tense press conference, where Silver banned the Clippers owner for life and fined him $2.5 million, all the maximum allowed under the NBA charter. If the verdict survives legal challenge, which most say it will, Silver will have subverted perhaps the worst league crisis since Ron Artest entered the stands in Detroit. Although this case is potentially even more explosive, with allegedly teams and players scheduling to boycott playoff games if Sterling had gotten anything less than the book thrown at him.

For his efforts, Silver has largely been lauded, affirming the league’s disdain of overt racism. The decision wasn’t a particularly tough one, even if getting there may have been. Silver had to rally the cabal of owners, who would have the ultimate decision on Sterling’s future, and work through mountains of legal chaos to affirm what seemed logical. He also had to appease an angry players union and press that called for unreasonably quick action. And of course, he had to answer questions of why Sterling hadn’t been punished years ago, which is like answering why you didn’t study harder in college.

The rest of this saga should play out in predictable processes. Sterling will most likely be pushed to sell his team, which may or may not end up in the hands of a Magic Johnson. The league will consider itself wiser and more righteous, which is up to the beholder. And most sports fans will laud the quick work of the NBA in denouncing racism and discrimination. That will be the end, for now at least, of the case of Donald Sterling.

What may more interesting moving ahead is to note what doesn’t happen. And that is, a comprehensive discussion of how race operates in the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, international world that is the NBA. Far more so than other professional sports leagues, the NBA operates with a primarily African-American labor force, upwards of 75%. That includes the league’s most prominent superstars, like LeBron James and Kevin Durante, who have become the true faceplate of the league. This diversity is reflected in game broadcasts and studio shows, where African-Americans staff shows at Turner Sports and ESPN and whites become the effective minority. Even the coaching staff is reflective of this diversity, with nearly half of all NBA teams led by an African-American head coaches.

But that all stops when we talk about two groups – the owners and the fans, the first group which is nearly exclusively white, and the second resoundingly so. In fact, the remarkable growth of the NBA product in the 80’s and 90’s was predicated on white suburban fans watching African American athletes in clearly the nation’s most athletic and urban major sport. It has always been a remarkable sociology experiment. So what doesn’t get discussed in the wake of Donald Sterling’s comments and resulting outrage, is that we still have a largely African-American workforce, a well-paid workforce of course, owned and funded by a largely white populace. It’s the structure that caused columnist Will Rhoden to question whether there could in fact be $40 million slaves.

This is why Donald Sterling’s comments were so inflammatory, and why fans recoiled in such knee jerk reaction. Sterling’s comments reminded us of the modern day plantation. And fans assuredly wanted nothing of that, even if they almost universally support the owners in any disputes or lockouts. Sports fans quickly label basketball players as greedy, out of touch, and simply not grateful enough whenever it comes to money. Or when they exercise their own personal destiny. Just remember how LeBron James was reviled when he dared move to Miami, as opposed to staying in Cleveland, as if he owed his former owner Dan Gilbert more than simply his past services. Those are the discussions we don’t want to have about race in the NBA. Because they’re hard, and they speak much more to the depth of this American condition than any press conference on racist language might. That discussion might really be uncomfortable. And lord knows, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is uncomfortable enough. 

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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