So we learned L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was a racist jerk, again. Now what?
Nine years ago, a friend of mine was an editor for a small black newspaper in South Los Angeles called the L.A. Scoop. He knew I was a writer and filmmaker and basketball fanatic and invited me to cover Los Angeles Clippers games with him, as the Scoop had media credentials.
“Thing is, we need a photographer,” he said. “Do you know one?”
“Know one?” I said. “I am one.”
My photography skills are barely above average now and were quite less than that in 2005. Nevertheless, he took me along and I soon found myself being ushered through the media entrance of the then six-year-old Staples Center. After a brief meal, he headed to the press box and I was supposed to head to the photographers’ section behind the basket. I said “supposed to” because something about walking alone through the voluminous bowels of the newly crowned jewel of Los Angeles entertainment facilities and emerging in the pricy lower level of an NBA arena overwhelmed me and disoriented my sense of direction. In my confusion, I sat down in the front row of section 110, twenty feet from the court, to look at the map again and get my bearings. Three old, presumably rich, white men stood nearby, joking about something. One of them, with a wrinkled face and sad, narrow eyes, covered by glasses, turned to me, almost as soon as I sat down.
“Hey, hey,” he said, nearly barking. “That’s not your seat.”
It was a half-hour before game time and the entire section was empty. “I know,” I said. “I’m actually trying to find it.”
“Ha ha,” he said, “imagine someone like you trying to sit there.”
“I’m a photographer,” I said. “And I’m just trying to find the photographers’ section.”
“What paper are you with?” he said.
“It’s a small black newspaper called the L.A. Scoop.”
“The L.A. Scoop?” he said. “Never heard of ya!” And then he laughed. Louder than was necessary, like the bad guy in a ‘80s cartoon. Full disclosure: I am a Christian. And I think most people who know me would say I am peaceful, patient and even keeled. But I grew up in Toledo. So punching him in his face was not out of the question.
Before I could fully entertain that idea, one of the other men cut in, reaching for my map. “Let me see if I can help you there.” He looked it over briefly and said, “You just go to the end of the aisle and make a left. It’s literally behind that basket.”
“Thank you sir,” I said, “for being helpful.” I cut my eyes at the guy with glasses and moved along.
Of course, you already know what I later found out - that the guy who mocked me was Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Even if judged purely by the franchise’s on court record, Sterling is universally acknowledged as one of the least successful owners in professional sports history. Since he bought the team in 1981, they had had just two winning seasons until the drafting of phenom forward (and witty Kia pitchman) Blake Griffin, a still controversial trade for superstar point guard Chris Paul and the later hiring of respected coach Doc Rivers suddenly made the team a winning, marketable, championship contender.
But ineptitude and apathy are the hallmarks of many professional sports owners. And ultimately, if your reputation as a loser doesn’t bother you, I’ve long been of the belief that it shouldn’t bother me either. It is Sterling’s off the court history, however, that propels him into the top of virtually all “Most Hated Sports Owners” lists. In 2006, just a year after our delightful run in, he was sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination against Koreans and African-Americans. The same year, he bought land in Los Angeles’s Skid Row district and ran ads in the L.A. Times stating that the land would be used to help the homeless. But here we are, in 2014, and nothing has been done with the land. Which would be fine, if Sterling wasn’t still running ads in the Timesdeclaring that it has. In 2009, Basketball Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, a black man and longtime Clipper executive, sued Sterling for age and race-based discrimination. This is a man who heckled his own players during games and made comments about their “beautiful black bodies” to their face, post-game, while they were changing in the locker room. And then, of course, there is this, for which I invite you to grab some friends and play the always fun game “Guess How Many Things Are Wrong With This Ad?”
So once you know all this, the latest Sterling headline is neither shocking nor disappointing. His half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend (he is still married, mind you) recorded an argument with Sterling, in which he blasted her for taking a picture with, of all people, Magic Johnson. Along the way he dropped gems like, “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it ... and not to bring them to my games." There is a lot more, but I will spare you. Since 12 of the Clippers’ 14 players are black, I would assume that not bringing any black people to Clippers’ games would be counterproductive. Of course, adding to the drama is that his comments appeared just as his suddenly exciting and popular team is in the middle of an intense playoff matchup with the equally exciting and popular Golden State Warriors.
In fairness, Donald Sterling is not the only wealthy man to have deplorable personal beliefs or that has made money off the backs of people he doesn’t want to be associated with otherwise. And, of course, the Clippers are not the only employees whose boss is a jerk. My concern is, when, do we, as Americans, as people who allegedly judge by character over race, as NBA fans, take a stand? When do we, as black people, collectively side step popular entertainment and businesses that do not have our best interests at heart? When does the NBA, which is always laser quick in disciplining players who do anythingthat is considered an affront to family-friendly behavior on or off the court, implement a code of professional standards for the owners? When do the Clippers’ players, coaches and management speak up against such mistreatment as athletes like Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did in the past? (All eyes will be on Chris Paul, especially, as he is not only a Sterling employee but President of the NBA Players Association.)
I believe that people are allowed to be human and their opinions do not have to reflect my own. However, when one has a body of work that supports racist ideologies, those who do not speak and act against it ultimately do support it.