Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Less Than Sterling

Very often the difference between a rut
And a grave is the depth of the habit.
- WPK, Jr.

I am not a fan of professional basketball.  Although I enjoy playing and watching sports a great deal, NBA hoops has simply never been among the sports I like.  Neither is MLS soccer. 

As a casual observer however I am familiar with the underachieving history of the Los Angeles Clippers f/k/a the San Diego Clippers and once upon a lifetime ago known as the Buffalo Braves and their owner Donald Sterling.  Perhaps it reveals all one needs to know about Mr. Sterling to know this:  his given name is Donald Tokowitz.  He changed his last name to Sterling more than a half-century ago for one reason:  branding.  "You have to name yourself after something that's really good, that people have confidence in."  Better to sound good than to actually be good I suppose.

Sterling, properly, had the hammer come down on him Tuesday afternoon courtesy of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

He brought it on himself of course - a firestorm of his own creation these past several days due to some incredibly tone-deaf and racially insensitive comments he apparently made during a telephone conversation with his girlfriend, which included among their highlights his declaration that she should not associate with African-American people and should never bring an African-American person - including Magic Johnson - with her to watch his Clippers play.  The fact that "his Clippers" play in a league where more than half of the players are African-American and are coached by Glenn "Doc" Rivers - who is also African-American is apparently of little moment to Sterling. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I could not find any information on-line to corroborate the rumor that he fired Rivers' predecessor without ever having met him - simply due to his last name.  Former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is, in fact, Caucasian.

By all accounts, Sterling is not a good guy.  However, to his "credit" (giving that word the broadest possible definitional interpretation) his apparent bigotry is not something he has ever worked especially hard to hide.  I would recommend that you invest a minute or ten reading this profile of Sterling that Peter Keating wrote for ESPN - The Magazine in 2009.  It is pretty wrenching stuff. 

I empathize with Chris Paul, Doc Rivers and each and every African-American who is a member of Sterling's NBA franchise.  But only to a degree.  At some point, we as adults make decisions about how we shall live our lives, how we shall conduct our business and to what lengths we shall go to earn our daily bread.  Sterling's "predilections" could not have been unknown to his players, coaches and front-office personnel.  Yet they have signed contracts with him and have agreed to be compensated handsomely by him. 

Acceptance of his money with knowledge of the type of man he is alleged to be does not make one complicit in all Sterling says and all Sterling does.  It does however leave one open to be questioned as to how much of his history one examined and investigated before starting to do business with him.  Not to mention whether his history went undetected or whether upon detecting it you conducted a simple cost-benefit analysis and decided that - for you - the ick factor of accepting money from him was far outweighed by the number of numerals to the left of the decimal point on your paycheck.

Similarly, while I applaud the NBA Commissioner's decision, which he arrived at after ordering an investigation "into" Sterling's comments (and learning in the process from Sterling that the voice on the audio tape was indeed his), I could not help but wonder what direction the league had looked previously when Sterling's boorish behavior was disclosed in court filings, deposition testimony and affidavits.  The NBA has four franchises in California including one that shares not only the City of Los Angeles with Sterling's Clippers but the same arena.  Presuming Sterling's legal machinations never generated a headline in any newspaper west of Death Valley, are we to believe that NO ONE associated with the NBA - including not just the people in the league office but fellow owners, club executives or players - had any knowledge of them?  Sorry, no sale. 

Truth be told, a lot of people and entities of all races and colors have been making a lot of money with Sterling and off of him during the thirty-one years he has owned the Clippers without once saying a word about his offensive - and in some cases illegal - tactics directed towards certain minority groups.  Everyone was happy to look the other way - to say nothing - until he was unmasked in a very public fashion on Friday.  Then, and only then, did hand-wringing become an Olympic-caliber event. A special shout-out to whoever it is who runs the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was preparing to give Sterling his second award in the past five years next month when the TMZ story broke on Friday.  One hell of a vetting process being utilized in that office.  If you have a moment then read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's piece on, which capsulizes the whole situation beautifully.

Martin Sheen's character, Carl Fox, said it best in Wall Street:   "I don't go to bed with no whore, and I don't wake up with no whore. That's how I live with myself. I don't know how you do it."

Methinks that is a question that has been asked a lot of themselves by the men and women who work for Sterling - including the millionaire athletes and coaches on the Clippers - and who have worked with him over the years helping to make him and themselves a considerable amount of money.  And methinks that it is a question that has as many answers as it has people asking it...

...including at least a few who cannot fathom how it is they ended up putting themselves in a position where they have to answer it.


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