With Sterling punishment, Silver sends empowering message to NBA players

Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

The NBA had to arm-twist Donald Sterling toward a trap door, and drop him through it. They had to get rid of the terrible audio-visuals, from his screw-you-I’m-rich insouciance at courtside, hands folded over that mound of stomach, to the half-closed eyes that seemed one blink away from nodding at the overseer, to the sound of his voice on tape saying “don’t bring blacks” to the games. His next topic of conversation could have been crossbreeding.

Sterling had to go, and the purge feels good. The penalty handed down by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was scythe-like and satisfying: a lifetime ban. But it’s hardly a merciless comeuppance for an 80-year-old billionaire who has profited off his players’ sweat for over 30 years. The real penalty will come if fellow owners make him sell, and it appears they will, because they understand Sterling’s racism is just one facet of a broadly objectionable mindset. One they are all vulnerable to being accused of. If the phrase “plantation mentality” has been used once in the last 24 hours it’s been used a dozen times.

But the problem is not a plantation mentality. It’s an owner’s mentality. It’s one thing to claim ownership of a factory, or a car lot. But in pro sports, rich white men assert a sense of dominion over other men, 78 percent of them black in the NBA, and that’s what supercharged the Sterling affair.

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The worst quote from the Sterling tapes wasn’t necessarily the one in which he told his mankiller girlfriend she could sleep with Magic Johnson, just don’t take him out in public. It was this one:

Question: “Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?”

Sterling: “Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does anyone else give it to them? . . . Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”

This summary possessiveness wasn’t restricted to players either. He also applied it to women. “If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl,” he said.

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The “plantation” analogy in sports is used often, and it’s usually wholly misapplied. Bryant Gumbel once called former NBA commissioner David Stern “a modern plantation overseer.” Attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who has represented players in labor issues, in 2011 accused owners of treating his clients like “plantation workers,” to Stern’s fury.

But as Touré once wrote in an essay on the subject, the plantation-sports team analogy is not just wrong, it’s offensive, because “athletes willingly, enthusiastically, enter into the transaction and are remunerated in a manner that puts them in the upper class. Once you’re paid six or seven or eight figures to do something you want to do and you gain the financial power to shape your life and improve the lives of those around you, well, then we are as far away from slave territory as we can get.”

Nothing is plantation slavery, got it? As Fran Lebowitz has observed, some comparisons are “immoral,” and this is one of them. Playing in the NBA is not the hellish, stripping, brutal experience of slavery.

But in this case Sterling made plantation language seem as if it was legitimate. The NBA had to act as aggressively as it did because Sterling didn’t understand, to quote Touré again, “the difference between owning players and owning the rights to players.”

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Sterling is hardly the only owner who has such a misapprehension. Too many sports franchise owners behave as if they beneficently “give” a living to the players. They seem to think that because they put up the capital, they “make” the game, and the players are just labor. You don’t have to be a racist to have that mentality.

The NBA’s rejection of Sterling was important on that score, because it signaled a respect for players’ sentiment. “It made me feel like we are in this thing together. Players and owners are in this thing together,” Charles Barkley said on TNT.

For 30 years the league tolerated Sterling in plain sight of his record of discrimination, and no one said “a mumbling word,” as ESPN’s Bomani Jones scathingly points out. But it now appears there are enough owner votes to force him out of the league. What changed? Perhaps simply sensibilities. But it’s also the economic reality that a player such as Chris Paul has sway with corporate sponsors such as State Farm. And the financial stake of former players in the NBA is growing.

(Note to free speech and privacy absolutists: I’m with you that the notion of penalizing Sterling for a private thought expressed in his own home is chilling. But nobody is talking about arresting Sterling. The NBA is an economic apparatus set up by mutually agreeing businessmen. And they gave themselves the option of voting someone out with a 75 percent majority. Sterling’s still got his free speech. What he doesn’t have is the right to make other people conduct business with him.)

It was striking that Silver’s announcement was immediately so hailed by players. The penalty, while decisive, frankly has little real impact on an old man. Perhaps more important was Silver’s acknowledgment of players as important partners who help “make” the game. His brief speech was rooted in recognition that they are part owners of the league too — if not as financiers, as builders. He opened his news conference with a tribute to the pioneers who built the league, specifically naming Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the second black man to play in the NBA, and Bill Russell. He seemed genuinely pained that players had cause “to question their very association with the league.” Silver said, “I apologize.”

As Silver noted, Shaquille O’Neal just bought a piece of the Sacramento Kings. Magic Johnson had a piece of the Lakers and is seeking majority ownership elsewhere. Michael Jordan has a majority share of the Bobcats. Will that solve the problem of the “ownership” attitude? Not necessarily. As Lebowitz observes, perhaps “We will have equality when dopey black people get into Harvard because their chair-endowing grandfathers went there. . . . We will have equality when the unjust deserts and ill-gotten gains are spread around impartially.”

I don’t necessarily dream of a league in which blacks are owners. I dream of a league in which the players’ ownership stake in the game is recognized and respected.