There is an interesting line of debate in the Donald Sterling saga. It goes: by banning Sterling from the league, and by attempting to force him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA is setting a risky precedent – one that could have potentially disastrous and unintended consequences somewhere down the line.
I would argue that some form of this precedent has been in place for longer than people tend to realize, and that Donald Sterling is merely the latest and most noteworthy victim of it. By that I don’t mean that Donald Sterling is somehow innocent or that he should be excused, but rather that he has blundered into a guillotine, one whose blade has been raised inch by inch, year by year, patiently waiting for the right neck to sever.
What force has raised this guillotine to its bloodthirsty apex? Some would say racism and racial tensions, both in the NBA and in American society at large. I would agree with this to some degree, but I think in reality, Sterling’s predicament has more to do with the NBA’s all-consuming obsession with its own image than it has to do with race.
It’s not hard to imagine a large, official, league-mandated poster that says “IMAGE” hanging in every NBA executive office. Almost everything David Stern did in his tenure as NBA commissioner was about image. The question considered before every decision was “How will this affect our ability to sell the league in the US and abroad?” And so each decision about the rules of play, including hand-check fouls, technical fouls, flagrant fouls, fighting, leaving the bench and the restricted area all contributed to a vision of an NBA arching away from the grinding physical play and rebellious attitudes of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and toward the more graceful, high-scoring, family-friendly league we have today.
Stern’s long renovation also made changes off the court. Among these was Stern’s infamous top-down institution of the dress code, which was very controversial at the time. To many, the move carried unpleasant racial implications. But undeterred, Stern moved forward without remorse, making the assertion that as employees and representatives of the NBA, players needed to project a certain image of professionalism in all events surrounding NBA basketball. Stern and the NBA have also been relentless in levying massive fines on players, coaches and owners for any criticisms of officiating by NBA referees. An NBA employee can easily be fined upward of $50,000 dollars for saying something like “I thought there were bad calls in the fourth quarter.” To put it one way, freedom of expression and freedom of speech are not NBA principles.
So it’s no wonder that Donald Sterling finds himself facing a lifetime ban and a $2,500,000 fine for what he thought were private comments about race. The comments were undoubtedly racist and uncomfortable, but hardly a hateful diatribe or admission of institutional discrimination against African Americans. Because of this, many have talked about a double-standard, as though Michael Jordan would not be punished as harshly for the same comments in reverse. This is a moot point. The only real double-standard to be considered here is the one between a person affiliated with the NBA, and one who is not.
Sterling’s comments not only go against the NBA’s scrubbing of negative images, they also tarnish the positive ones – bringing certain uncomfortable socio-economic truths into focus. There is a sort of inferred, idealized and racial version of the Horatio Alger American dream at work in the NBA’s image. It is the African American child, growing up in difficult circumstances (often with a single parent), and yet overcoming life’s many obstacles and achieving fame and fortune through perseverance, practice, sacrifice and devotion to the game of basketball. It can be a stirring narrative, brought into sharp acuity by moments like Kevin Durant’s tearful tribute to his mother (Wanda Pratt, who was single during Durant’s childhood) during his 2014 MVP acceptance speech.
Stern’s ultimate vision is of a temple of uncomplicated worship. A place where fans of every nation and culture – parents and children alike – can gather to delight in the teamwork, passion and athletic feats of the gigantic demigods of the NBA. Fans must be able to devote themselves to their favorite team without fear that they are cheering for men of low character. Thus the NBA has been assiduous in letting us know that the NBA Cares. The charity and volunteering work of the players and coaches is heavily emphasized in broadcasts, promotions and TV commercials. The NBA wants to appear not just as an entertaining sports league, but as a benevolent organization – one whose high standards lift the spirits and character of the disadvantaged, and one that provides an array of positive role models to the world’s youth.
In the face of this hopeful construction, Donald Sterling becomes a grotesque Grinch – one who throws the whole story into question. Those who take pride and heart in the golden success of the young black players of the NBA can’t help but be reminded that the vast majority of NBA owners are white men. Men who quietly maintain control – trading and releasing players, hiring and firing coaches, and selling and moving teams – for pragmatic, often unpleasant financial reasons. The idea that Sterling is racist in private raises questions. What if the other owners are racist? Why are there so few minority owners? How can a player continue to play for someone who doesn’t respect them because of their skin color and background?
The NBA at large cannot afford to have this kind of cloud hovering over it. Sterling is rapidly becoming a cumbersome and embarrassing albatross – old, white, adulterous, smug and exceedingly rich. Sterling is known for being disagreeable – and allegedly racist – this reputation stemming from a number of lawsuits involving his dealings in real estate and with former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor. Sterling is a near-caricature of the callous, out of touch 1%, and the opposite of the un-cynical, aspirational image the NBA strives so hard to project.
And so the decision presented to new commissioner Adam Silver was not a difficult one. He could either give Sterling a slap on the wrist, and in doing so, undo much of David Stern’s three decades of iron-fisted reforms, alienate the players and fans, create a wild inconsistency in NBA discipline and incite a damaging racial controversy. Or, Silver could simply look down at the cantankerous, arrogant fool struggling and rationalizing in the guillotine before him, and heed the chorus of loud voices behind him, numbering in the millions, calling for him to drop the blade.
The NBA is not without a sense of redemption. Many players and coaches, including “Birdman” Chris Andersen and Ron Artest/Metta World Peace, have been able to rebuild their careers after fairly serious trespasses. However, the NBA has little prospect of wringing an inspiring story from the thus far unrepentant Sterling. He is simply too old and set in his ways, too rich and prideful. He is flying against the NBA’s ideal image, and each day he fights, he only becomes more ensnared in the guillotine. Sterling’s struggles are causing the blade to slip down by degrees as Silver and the rest of us look on – eliminating the chance of a clean break and instead setting up a severance that will be slow, loud, painful, messy and difficult to watch.