Commentary: Don’t let Donald Sterling’s remarks overshadow the NBA’s progress over intolerance


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One year ago today, Brooklyn Nets’ center Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in a major American team sport. His bravery and courage inspired the likes of Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon and surely thousands of others to step out in spite of societal ignorance.  

And last week, his decision to wear that “first” label rightfully earned him a spot on Tim* magazine’s 100 most influential people list.

The first anniversary of the announcement is strangely timed, considering the NBA is in the middle of a battle against the alleged racially charged comments Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling made to his girlfriend. As Collins celebrates a year free of fear and hiding his true self, Sterling’s hateful remarks cast a shadow over the progress Collins has spearheaded during the last calendar year.

The two spheres being connected are clearly very different; there’s no doubting that. But there is a connection nonetheless. Both situations take hold in places where people — because of their lack of understanding or refusal to do so — spew nonsense about qualities (sexual orientation or race) other humans don’t necessarily ever choose to possess.

Collins battled the distinct and deep-rooted homophobic culture in sport for 30-some odd years, and African-Americans, clearly, are still forced to respond when someone as cruel as Sterling conjures up the type of language we’ve all heard on the tape.

What Collins’ announcement and subsequent success with the Nets this season showed us all is that American professional leagues are ready to leave acts like Sterling’s behind. But what Sterling’s actions proved was that we’re not as close to making prejudices extinct as we should be.

How the league responded to Collins could not have been better. But how it reacts and moves forward after the Sterling debacle will be something newly named Commissioner Adam Silver could be remembered for. This is the first legitimate crisis he’ll deal with as commissioner of the league, but it may be the most important he’ll face.

Silver apparently has the full backing of the other owners to dish out an appropriate punishment. And after the league’s investigation is complete, we’ll know how far it’s willing to go to rid itself of such racist and reprehensible actions.

As has been echoed by many over the past few days, there isn’t any room for Sterling in the NBA. And there may not be a team or group of leaders (Doc Rivers, Chris Paul) better equipped to combat the betrayal of their boss.

Clearly, there is room for more like Collins, which is why the Clippers owner’s statements shouldn’t overshadow the significant amount of progress the league has made because of his efforts.

Sterling deserves every bit of the public scrutiny and backlash he’ll receive from the NBA. But we should all recognize April 29 as a day Collins helped us all inch closer to complete acceptance.

Sterling shouldn’t be able to mask or diminish the magnitude of his accomplishments.

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