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Column: Clippers’ Donald Sterling became a modern day slave owner

Let’s talk about Donald Sterling.

Picture for a moment the sun rising over a vast plantation where virile black bodies pick cotton every day, gaily singing their hearts out all the while. Thus the world is in its rightful order.

I imagine visions such as these crossed Donald Sterling’s mind more than once. Something about the way he managed the Los Angeles Clippers transcended “everyday” racism. Instead of, say, a few off-color remarks here and there, he actively worked to build a modern day plantation system within the NBA. His ownership of his team was an embarrassment to a league whose success has been built on the backs of black men.

Sterling’s apparent infatuation with Jim Crow isn’t a new development. Outside of his NBA travails, he has been sued by the Justice Department for forbidding his rental company from leasing to African Americans. As an NBA team owner, he reportedly brought women into the players’ locker room and proclaimed, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.” He reportedly told Clippers employees that his goal was to amass “poor black boys from the South … playing for a white head coach.” In his infamous recording, capturing a conversation between him and his girlfriend, he refers to blacks and other minorities as “the enemy” and wishes to avoid any association with them, much less have them at his games. Of course, he had no problem with having them on the court and making him millions.

As of yesterday afternoon, he has been thankfully barred from the NBA for life, and the Clippers will soon be sold to a new owner. Nevertheless, his outburst could not have come at a worse time for the team. The Clippers, who before last night were tied in a heated series with the Golden State Warriors at two games apiece, need nothing less than outside distractions as they try to win the franchise’s first championship. During the last few days, the players themselves have been caught in a conundrum: actively boycott Sterling and risk their postseason chances or protest silently, all the while continuing to earn Sterling more and more money.

Magic Johnson, a focus of Sterling’s vitriol in the aforementioned video, said about Sterling, “[The players] make him money but are not welcome at the games.” With this in mind, it almost seemed the players’ duties to actively resist Sterling’s reign. Indeed, many called upon the Clippers players to forfeit one of their upcoming games to protest his racist remarks.

But how is it fair to ask the Clippers to fight on two different fronts, against foes both external and internal? This battle shouldn’t be theirs to fight alone. They deserve to keep playing through this madness because they owe it to each other, not Sterling, to complete the goal they’ve had all season.

Hence, the onus to fight Sterling has fallen primarily on league officials. Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to remove Sterling from any NBA operations comes in itself as a surprise. Though the NBA does reserve the right to immediately remove an owner from power, many thought that this extreme measure would only be exercised due to financial considerations (i.e., when the owner is struggling to pay everything necessary to keep a team running). Sterling, for all his faults, has had little issue paying the bills. Hence, the league has made a necessary statement: There is no place for such unabashed bigotry in the NBA.

However, though Silver should be praised for taking such decisive action, there still remains a larger question: What kind of league is the NBA that would allow men like Donald Sterling to repeatedly treat their players as animals? Baron Davis, former point guard for the Clippers, recently said that, during the Clippers’ home games, Sterling would heckle him unceasingly, calling his own player “a bastard” and “the devil.” Davis said that, at some point, “[He] couldn’t find a way to function … knowing that [Sterling] hates me.” Is it OK to let Sterling create an environment that robs players of their passion for the game? In buying the Clippers, did he also purchase the right to strip the dignity of his own players?

The issues that have come up in this video aren’t at all new; Sterling was the same kind of man creating the same kind of environment in years past. The fact that this video comes out during the playoffs, just as the Clippers start to establish themselves as contenders, brings the situation into the spotlight, but the truth is that Sterling and his attitudes should have been handled in a better way years ago.

Some may respond that the NBA Players Association exists for situations exactly like this — to help give players a voice and defend themselves from the kind of abuse Sterling has dished out. But that’s missing the point. It should not be up to the players alone to defend themselves against abuse from owners. An institution that allows for the kind of hatred Sterling spewed at his players needs to ask itself what they really stand for. Is it the owners’ rights to autonomy over their team or the players’ rights to a fair, non-hostile workspace?

Sterling had to go — this much is clear. But his holding the franchise for as long as he did, with his overt racism being public knowledge, is a travesty. Silver may have just set the tone for his tenure as commissioner, but damage has already been done. Up until his removal, Sterling was proof that, with the right amount of money, it’s possible to be a modern day slave owner.

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