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Sterling's comments the latest black eye for the NBA

BY ZACH TILLY | APRIL 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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Clippers owner Donald Sterling singlehandedly derailed the NBA playoffs over the weekend, when TMZ dropped what is apparently an extended audio recording of Sterling imploring his girlfriend to refrain from publicly associating with black men at games and on Instagram.

Magic Johnson took the brunt of Sterling’s ignorance.

“I’ve known [Magic] well, and he should be admired. … I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately,” Sterling apparently says on the tape. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, but don’t put [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

The outcry around the league (and the country) was swift, of course. Magic, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, President Obama, et al., were quick to denounce Sterling; Commissioner Adam Silver says the league is very seriously investigating the matter. The Clippers wore their warm-up shirts inside out before their game at Golden State on Sunday in a show of solidarity against ownership.

Obviously, this case illustrates the fraught racial politics of the Clippers’ front office, but more broadly, this is the most concrete example in recent memory of the difficulty of dealing with entrenched racism. Sterling’s brand of racism is a pernicious thing that doesn’t manifest itself in any way so obvious as discriminatory hiring practices — instead it’s all about personal resentment and hatred that percolates behind the scenes. It’s a deep and irrational disrespect, and it’s clear that there’s no place for it.

But how can you fight back against a guy who is insulated from the consequences of his actions by lots of money and the privileges of ownership?

How do you publicly shame a guy who very obviously can’t be shamed? Sterling, after all, has a long record of saying and doing deplorable things and that trajectory hasn’t changed after any amount of chastising or even after being sued by the federal government for discriminatory housing practices at some properties owned by Sterling.

Compared to the Department of Justice, the league has a limited arsenal of punishments available to it, none of which are likely to sting in any meaningful way. How can you punish a guy with more money than God?

You can’t just repossess the Clippers, nor can you boycott the team without unduly punishing Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin, and Doc Rivers. And it’s not like those guys can just walk out on the franchise’s best chance at winning a title ever and, you know, their contracts.

Worst of all, you can’t even chalk this up to an isolated incident. Sterling is clearly running in a circle of Instagram-monitoring, champagne-flute clinking white supremacists who rigorously police their circle of acquaintances to ensure that any contact with minorities is kept on distinctly unequal terms. Guys like Donald Sterling are kind of like cockroaches … when you see one, you can be sure there are a thousand more eating the glue behind your wallpaper.

And so what we’re left with in the middle of a stunningly entertaining first round of the playoffs is an uncomfortable reminder of the problematic racial dynamics that abound in the Clippers organization and wherever Sterling sympathizers exist. For all the progress the NBA has made toward inclusion (it’s by far the most progressive sports league in terms of both racial and gender diversity in hiring), a big chunk of the league’s revenue is still funding one racist megalomaniac’s misadventures in LA.

Happy Playoffs.


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