At the heart of the American dream, or more cynically, the American brand is one word: possibility. Why did Nobel Prize novelist John Steinbeck mock the nation’s working-class as a bunch of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires?” Because in the glorious, exceptional U.S. of A, we largely dream of, follow and strive to become winners; and when it comes to capitalism, the only true winners are shotcallers, bosses, owners, period. All the other losers are either employees or customers.
For most of the 33 years that Donald “Sterling” Tokowitz owned the Los Angeles Clippers, he showed complete indifference to not only his team’s fans and workers, but even to winning on the court–partly because in owning a license to print money, aka a professional sports franchise, even when he lost, as John Legend sings, he won. And partly because, even with facts and testimony as to his bigoted treatment of tenants in his L.A. slums, or of his Hall of Famer GM Elgin Baylor, or of his habit of trading money for sex, he escaped with slaps on the wrist.
When caught dead to rights racially discriminating against his tenants, he spent nearly $10 million combined in settlements (a fraction of his billions) in two separate lawsuits to make them disappear. And like most commissioners of pro sports leagues, David Stern answered not to decency or fairness, but to Sterling and 29 other very wealthy and powerful proprietors, so he basically looked the other way. Lucky for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, TMZ’s recordings of Sterling expressing pure contempt for black fans, players and especially Magic Johnson gave him an early and highly visible opportunity to get on the right side of history.
Silver’s lifetime ban of Sterling and yet another paltry fine, for $2.5 million, are a start, but this fiasco won’t vanish so easily. Perhaps due to exhaustion for some, entitlement for others, our collective understanding of American racism hasn’t improved post-President Obama. Paula Deen was not fired from Food Network for a slip of the tongue, but because so much evidence of her businesses’ racial and gender discrimination surfaced in a lawsuit that she had to get chopped. Likewise Sterling had been all-too-quietly embarrassing the NBA with his bigoted business dealings for years before our indiscreet age of information and the internet outed him irrefutably.
But this isn’t a black problem or a sports problem: structural racism has always been, and may continue to be, a problem as congenital to the land of liberty as is the hope of a better tomorrow. We all own it, and until more shotcallers like Sterling are held accountable for infecting their institutions and our nation with such ignorance and hatred, we will all own the losses too.
Photo Credit: Getty Images