Why, Now, is Donald Sterling’s Racism Big News?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, center, and V. Stiviano, left.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, center, and V. Stiviano, left. –AP

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in trouble. Rightfully so, just about every key figure in professional sports is outraged at comments allegedly made by Sterling in a tape leaked to TMZ over the weekend.On the tape, a man purported to be Sterling talks in great length to Sterling’s girlfriend, V. Stiviano, about Stiviano’s choice of company at Clippers games.

“Your whole life, every day, you could do whatever you want,’’ says the man. “You can sleep with [black people], you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it…and not to bring them to my games.’’


That comment and other similar sentiments made on the tape would be damning for anyone, but given Sterling’s status as an owner in a league made up of predominently black players, they’ve become a lightning rod. The NBA’s best and most visible player, LeBron James, said bluntly, ‘There’s no place for Donald Sterling in our league.’’

James may eventually be proven right. The Clippers play Game 5 of their playoff series with the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, and the league is likely to take at least some action before the series returns to Los Angeles for the first time since the tapes were leaked. Given the backlash, it would come as no surprise to see the NBA move toward alternate ownership for the Clippers, though that scenario is unlikely to be resolved swiftly. In the meantime, a fine and suspension for Sterling are all but assured.

Taking corrective action against Sterling is the right thing to do. It’s also long overdue. In 2006, Bomani Jones wrote a piece for ESPN.com with the headline, “Sterling’s racism should be news.’’ At the time, Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for allegedly refusing to rent apartments in Beverly Hills and Koreatown to black people. He paid $2.73 million to settle that suit in 2009, a lawsuit which quoted Sterling as saying, in sworn testimony mind you, “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’’ adding, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.’’ Behind the scenes, dozens of NBA players, coaches, and executives have alleged racism from Sterling in their interactions with the Clippers owner.


In 2003, in a separate case, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned. The tenants claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case out of court.

Sterling’s history of alleged racism, documented by the U.S. legal system and a major drain on his wallet, failed to attract the kind of attention the TMZ clip has now. On the lack of attention Sterling’s prior transgressions received at the the, ESPN’s Jones wrote

The tragedy of Maurice Clarett is big news. So are the legal adventures of the Cincinnati Bengals, Rhett Bomar's inability to recognize that not all money is good money, Floyd Landis' daily excuse, and teenager Michelle Wie's being too nervous to tell a grown man she would no longer pay him to carry her stuff around a golf course. But Donald Sterling's refusing to offer housing to blacks and Latinos? Must not have that sizzle."

There’s more sizzle, of course, in an audio clip between Sterling and his mistress than in pages and pages of court testimony. But that doesn’t excuse the NBA, the media, and anyone else who let Sterling off the hook for his behavior all this time. Where was the outrage when Sterling bought his way out of his his racism problems in 2003 and 2009? Sterling didn’t admit liability in settling the lawsuits, but given the severity of the accusations combined with the pathetic history of Sterling’s team on the court, the league could and should have moved toward some kind of Sterling exit plan earlier. The NBA is fortunate that David Stern ended his long run as commissioner earlier this year and won’t have to answer questions as to why he let this go on.

Shame on Donald Sterling for failing to uphold standards of basic human decency despite his elevated status as a league executive. Shame on the NBA for not taking action sooner. Shame on us, too, for letting a sensational story dictate our level of outrage toward what is by most accounts a contemptible human being. Sterling should have been gone from the NBA a long time ago. None of us should feel very good about that.

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