It is oddly fitting that Donald Sterling, billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, finds himself embroiled in a racism scandal not long after the Academy Award for best picture went to 12 Years a Slave. Last May, nine miles away from where the Clippers compete, Hollywood rewarded the outstanding movie in part because it realistically depicted America’s darkest days of bigotry, and how far this country has since progressed. And then there were Sterling’s comments — like a dark sequel released two months later — indicative that some people’s opinions remain stuck in a prior century.
In a recorded conversation released by Sterling’s ex-girlfriend, the NBA owner allegedly asked her not to bring black people to Clippers’ games. According to the male voice on the tape, it was okay for her to be friends with black people, and even to “sleep with them,” so long as she did not publicly broadcast her relationships with members of that race. The argument stemmed from her posting on Instagram a photo taken with Magic Johnson, a black athlete and Hall-of-Famer from the Los Angeles Lakers.
One on level, Sterling’s comments are puzzling and hypocritical. His ex-girlfriend is half-black, while Johnson is a universally beloved humanitarian, entrepreneur, movie theater mogul, and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Sterling, a real estate magnate, cannot recognize goodness and talent in his business equal, then there is little hope that he will ever see beyond his odious bigotry.
In the larger picture, Sterling’s words are reprehensible and woefully out of touch with an evolving society. They sound like scripted hatred spoken by an antagonist from 12 Years a Slave. Only this racist rant allegedly originated from a team-owner in the NBA, a league comprised primarily of black players and which counts a big fan base from among the black community.
To suggest that this mars the Clippers is a self-evident understatement. An owner is the face of the franchise. As such, his or her actions can become emblematic of the team. Sharp criticism of Sterling has come from fellow owners, NBA athletes, and even President Obama. The Clippers’ own players turned their warm-up jerseys inside out before a recent playoff game, hiding the tarnished logo they were ashamed to wear. The team employs a black head coach, who is understandably unsure whether to return next season.
Before the controversy, the Clippers had enjoyed their best season statistically in franchise history. They had appeared poised for a deep postseason run. Now, with a team-owner whose racist remarks have become a national scandal, who knows what sort of performance and spirit to expect from the players? In this regard, this franchise shares a moral with 12 Years a Slave.
For all their misguided effort to force an entire population into bondage, plantation owners came out worse for the endeavor. As depicted in the movie, these men and women can be tormented souls, unaware that it is violent bigotry which causes their mental and emotional degradation. Viewers know that it does not have to be such — that owners could just hire workers for fair wages, and still turn profits without unraveling psychologically.
So too it could have been with Sterling. He could have worked to cultivate cultural values. Instead, he never took time to genuinely appreciate black culture, and in turn allowed racist sentiments to poison public perception. And for this shortsighted selfishness, he has irreparably damaged his image, team, business and legacy. As the plantation owners of 12 Years a Slave tarnished America’s past, Sterling symbolizes a low point in NBA history.
The ball is now in his court to grapple with that which has sidelined his career while demoralizing his team.