It’s unfortunate that the conversation around how the NBA should deal with slum-lording, racist, problem child Donald Sterling now centers on the relationship between the Los Angeles Clippers owner and his players. There’s no debating that the Black players whose athleticism, muscle and sweat enrich Sterling should take his racism more personally than anyone else –this is the same owner that legendary Clippers player and former GM Elgin Baylor alleged in a 2009 lawsuit ran his team like a Southern plantation– and it’d be refreshing if Chris Paul and Blake Griffin chose dignity over their contracts.
But expecting a player boycott isn’t merely unrealistic; it’s flimsy, simplistic and wrongheaded, even if well-intentioned. It lets the Association off easy. Sterling doesn’t fear a boycott by his employees; he’s too powerful and most of them are too easily replaced. (It should be noted, however, that the Clippers found a way to express their disgust at last night's playoff game against the Golden State Warriors.) What he would fear, and what the NBA and every American professional sports league needs is a “Rooney Rule” for ownership. The only real way to make sure Black athletes aren’t treated like chattel is to break the stranglehold that White men on ownership of teams populated by Black athletes.
That Sterling’s crass, retro bigotry endures in the modern NBA — where power is characterized by owners hiding their books, locking out the union, then minimizing the players’ share of massive TV contracts — proves that his colleagues have tolerated his demagoguery as long as the league rakes in billions. Lionized as they are in pop culture, players are labor and labor in the NBA has already proven it can be broken. Expecting new commissioner Adam Silver to smack Sterling down on their behalf is unlikely for the same reason Silver’s predecessor was so comfortable disciplining Black players and trying to extinguish any trace of the hip-hop culture they brought to the court with them. The commissioner has bosses and those bosses are mostly billionaire White men. They are Sterling’s peers, not Chris Paul’s or Blake Griffin’s, and they’ve have known what Sterling was about for years. He’s never tried to keep it a secret. If the owners haven’t outright protected Sterling, neither have they tried to weed him out of their ranks.
The exception is Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who called out Sterling and made clear to Silver that he expected action in a statement on Sunday. “As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I’m confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly,” read the statement posted to the Bobcats’ official website. “There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed.”
Jordan is not only the league’s only Black majority owner, but the only owner (thus far) who has spoken out publicly and made it plain that Sterling’s racism doesn’t belong in the league. This is not a coincidence (and Jordan, long quiet on issues of race in the league and elsewhere, shouldn’t stop there.) The NBA needs more than Michael Jordan. It needs to require diversity in ownership as part every future sale. It’s the same principle that successfully gave opportunity to Super Bowl-winning head coaches like Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy in the NFL, and it happened because the owner of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises insisted it be that way. It’s time to take the next step, and time for the NBA to make an example of both Sterling — by pressuring Sterling to sell the Clippers — and itself by making sure that a Black person is part of the next ownership group.
A decade ago, when I wrote about sports business for the Boston Globe, the principal owner of the Celtics introduced me to one of his minority partners, James Cash. He’s no household name, but Cash is an icon in American business: an endowed emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School, the lead independent director on Wal-Mart’s board, a former member of Microsoft’s board. Cash is no slouch, and he’s Black. But he’s not the kind of Black man who depends on men like Sterling for his paycheck; he’s the kind of Black man with the money and connections to do business in the same arenas (pun-intended) as Sterling, the kind of guy who can ensure his employees are treated with respect regardless of their race.