Why do sports get a pass?

Photo: RogerG1

Photo: RogerG1

If you haven’t heard the past week’s Donald Sterling story, congratulations. You have successfully avoided the major commercial networks, public radio, late night talk shows, the blog-o-sphere and all other credible and not-so-credible news sources. (If CNN is your news source, you probably know nothing about Sterling but can give us all the mind-numbing details on the search for flight 370.)

Here’s the short version: long time, officially recognized bigot Donald Sterling, who owns the NBA LA Clippers, was caught on audio telling his girlfriend that he didn’t want “his woman” (cringe…another problem) associating with black people in public and, most specifically, at his team’s games.

V. Stiviano, Sterling’s “woman,” had posted photos of herself with NBA Hall of Fame member and all-around sports legend Magic Johnson. These online photos put Sterling over the edge apparently. (Note: Ms. Stiviano is half African-American, half Mexican. Cringe. Yet another problem.)

The NBA responded quickly. Commissioner Adam Silver banned the 81-year old Sterling for life from the NBA, including attendance at his own team’s games. While Silver does not have the authority to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, he is encouraging other team owners to force the sale. So, very likely, Sterling will sell the team and, even after a discount in the context of the controversy, walk away with something on the order of a $500 million purse (he paid about $70 million for the team 20 or so years ago).

Justice served. Right? Well, maybe. Sterling, identified years ago as a bigot, had not been forced out of active NBA participation until this incident–largely because of the viral public reaction, picked up and reported on by the media.

While Sterling’s little rant was frightened and racist, ESPN sports commentator, Bomani Jones, who has used his observations on sports as a starting point for a much deeper consideration of American culture, including racism, responded to the Sterling episode quite differently than most of the other media pundits. He sees Sterling’s comments as trivial–an old man insecure about how his peer group will perceive his younger mistress. What Bonami drills down to is the more important impact of racism–including Sterling’s–on daily life for millions of people of color in our country, citing Chicago’s de facto housing segregation as an example. In Bomani’s hometown, that segregation has kept poor blacks and Latinos from access to much of what is available to the city’s white population. Here’s a YouTube version of the radio conversation. Keep in mind there’s a bit of loose chatter between Bonami and the program’s hosts during the first couple of minutes. Then, Bonami gets down to business.

Let’s also take note of Sterling’s behavior in the context of professional sports across the country. To think that he is the only team owner or wealthy investor in professional sports who is a bigot is naive and delusional.

Since the 1990s, various Native American Nations have been lobbying to bring the Washington Redskins (an NFL team) to court over the usage of a racial slur as the team name. In the wake of the Sterling episode, the Oneida Nation is calling for a reconsideration of this question. The current owner of the team, Daniel Snyder, refuses to consider a name change–citing questionable surveys that show Native Americans agree with him and asserting that he doesn’t think the name is racist but rather part of a long-standing team tradition.

The Atlanta Braves (MLB) wanted to reinstate the “Screaming Indian” logo a couple of years ago…until media unequivocally referred to it as racist imagery. And, the Cleveland Indians (MLB) has been very slowly distancing themselves from “Chief Wahoo,” their fire engine red-skinned team mascot.

Why do we lash out at Sterling but say “meh” to the others? Sterling and Snyder bother me personally because they are both Jewish men, as am I. In Westchester as a high school student, I was called a “dirty jew.” Later, as an adult in central NY, someone told me he was proud for “jewing down” a store owner. Intolerance is often just below the surface in the U.S. People don’t use racist language unless they are comfortable with racism and intolerance. What we say matters because, as in Sterling’s history of housing discrimination, it often reflects what we do.

Sports is a microcosm of American culture and attitudes. If we allow this casual acceptance of intolerance to continue in the sports world, what does that say about us?

Tags: , , , , ,

5 Comments on “Why do sports get a pass?”

  1. Caren (aka Mom) says:

    As usual…well said Jonathan. You are right, the storm ensues because it went viral. We have not yet addressed the fact that racism is still pervasive in many, many parts of our culture. In fact, it’s so ingrained people think it’s not there anymore.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    You need to go deeper than condemning a person for using a racist or any other bigoted comment.
    Let me try to explain.
    A person doesn’t need to be a bigot or a racist to use a racist or bigoted comment. What they are always guilty of is trying to hurt someone with words. These comments are a form of swearing and bullying.
    I am 100% certain the some of the biggest bigots are smart enough to never make racist or bigoted comments.
    I would not be surprised to learn that some who are yelling the loudest are more bigoted than Sterling.

  3. mervel says:

    At some point when do the fans and media stations who cover the Clippers and the NBA become complicit?

    These guys get away with anything because they are wealthy and own NBA franchises. I mean where is the fan boycott, where is the sponsor boycott?

  4. Yes, the Redskins as a nickname is tradition. Lots of things are tradition. Not all traditions are good.

    It’s worth remembering that DC’s basketball team used to be called the Bullets. Then ownership decided that was an inappropriate name in a city with one of the nation’s highest homicide rates. It changed to the Wizards. Curiously, the sky did not fall in the wake of that decision.

  5. Jon (the author) says:


    Yes, the Redskins name is “tradition.” If you check out the great article by the Washington Post below, it questions the validity of the usage of the name from the get go and said “tradition.”

    Also, as you point out, the DC basketball team did change an inappropriate name. As well as collegiate sports teams, St. John’s Red Storm (formally the Red Men) and the Stanford Cardinal (formally the Indians). I am sure there are others out there as there are countless DI, DII & DIII schools but these are just a couple of notable examples.

    The point is, if a college team can change an offensive name, than why not a pro team?

    Washington Post article on questionable origins of the Washington D.C. team name:

Comments are closed.