Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s purported racist tirade was disclosed Saturday morning by TMZ (Deadspin chipped in a director’s cut). Sterling told his alleged mistress, according to the tape, that “it bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.” He said other vomit-worthy things. He has issued a non-denial denial. The NBA is investigating. But many players have been less hesitant to speak forcefully, and their message might be summed up in what LeBron James told a reporter Saturday: “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league.” Whose league? Our league.
As the league begins to move against its longest-tenured owner, the moment feels positively catalytic. The National Basketball Association is the sports world’s most progressive league. Its 30 teams are 30 businesses out to make money, but they do it in a game that finds its greatest popularity among the lower and middle classes and as a league with the second-highest proportion of Democratic fans. More specifically, the NBA is society’s cutting edge as far as race is concerned—it’s the league that birthed the first black head coach (Bill Russell, with due respect to football’s Fritz Pollard); first black superstar (Wilt Chamberlain); first black sneaker brand (Air Jordan); first black general manager (Wayne Embry); and only black owners (the Charlotte Bobcats were owned by Bob Johnson and are now owned by Michael Jordan). Its recent surge in popularity and value has been due primarily to an unusually talented and charismatic inventory of superstars who are overwhelmingly young black men.
Over the past several years, NBA players have seized the athletic and cultural zeitgeist, in the process making a ton of money for themselves but even more for ownership, who have seen their properties appreciate at rates not normally experienced outside the top echelons of Silicon Valley and Wall Street—according to Forbes, franchise values have increased 25 percent just in the past year. This imbalance—between who is responsible for the profit and who reaps the profit—makes less sense with each passing year, and incidents like Sterling’s make it seem absurd. So this is a moment of reckoning for the league, and, since the league has always seemed to represent more than just itself on matters of race and of labor, it’s a moment of reckoning for everyone. Will Sterling be allowed to stick around just because he’s the guy who owns the team? Or will the laborers responsible for Sterling’s success get their way? To put it more bluntly: Will the moribund old white guys win another round, or will the young wealth-creators triumph?
Starting with James’ infamous Decision in 2010, the league’s superstars have discovered and wielded their increased power, forcing trades and coach firings, but also assuming responsibility for their own destinies. The biggest stars are not just businessmen but businesses, man: James has his cut of Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones company; in exchange for an equity stake, Dwyane Wade has a sneaker brand with Li Ning, a Chinese sportswear company. In 1990, Jordan refused to endorse a black Democrat trying to unseat the vile Sen. Jesse Helms and defended himself with the memorable phrase, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Twenty-two years later, the Miami Heat donned hoodies in memory of Trayvon Martin, a thoroughly political moment that expressed a lack of concern for sneaker-buyers who might have been offended. NBA players’ new potency hasn’t exactly been harmed by the election of the first black president—who, Sunday morning, condemned Sterling.
One has seen the players’ newfound sense of empowerment in their reactions to Sterling’s purported comments. The players union’s de facto executive director, former star point guard and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, called them “reprehensible and unacceptable.” (Ironies of history: The guy in the driver’s seat of one of the country’s most visible unions is married to one of labor’s most visible antagonists, Michelle Rhee.) Kobe Bryant tweeted, “I couldn’t play for him.”
No better example exists of the new mold of NBA player than the Clippers’ Chris Paul. He is the league’s best point guard. But he is also president of the National Basketball Players Association. He is a family man who has made his older son into a YouTube star by bringing him to post-game press conferences. At one such press conference last year, when Paul was asked about an ugly fight that had gone down between his teammate and an opposing player, he threw the question to his son, who repeated his father’s teaching: “We do it with words.” Two short decades ago, NBA star Charles Barkley could say that athletes can’t be “role models” to “young black kids.” Today, Chris Paul is a role model to young black kids.
If Paul is Exhibit A in the NBA’s newly enfranchised labor force, no better example exists of the anachronistic, rentier NBA owner than Sterling. He bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million. Forbes most recently valued the franchise at $575 million. And that’s a joke: Given that the Sacramento Kings, who have no stars (sorry Rudy Gay) and play in a tiny market, just sold for $534 million, it is clear that Sterling could net north of $700 million for the L.A.-based team of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Adjusted for inflation, such a sale would represent a return-on-investment of approximately three gajillion percent.
We like to lionize investors like Sterling who bravely risk their money to buy things, make the things they bought better, and flip them for astonishing profit. But Sterling has had nothing to do with the incredible success of his Clippers investment. For nearly all of their history, the Clippers have been the consistently worst team in the NBA. They are good now only because they were able to draft Griffin with a high pick, after yet another bad season, and because they were able to trade for Paul after former commissioner David Stern, in a brazen sop to less-successful owners like Sterling, vetoed a trade that would have sent Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.
More importantly, Sterling’s team’s value exploded because the league exploded, and it did this partly because a few owners (not Sterling) were savvy, partly because Stern was an able steward, and most of all because the league enjoyed the talents of Magic and Larry; and then Michael, Barkley, Ewing, and Hakeem the Dream; and then Shaq, Duncan, Iverson, Kobe, Dirk, Wade, and T-Mac; and now Melo, Blake, Steph Curry, DRose, LeBron, and Kevin Durant. That is, because brand-name superstar players, nearly all of them black, some of whom grew up poor and all of whom worked hard to get to where they are, made the NBA and basketball respectively into an ascendant league and an ascendant sport, primed to replace the National Football League as America’s most popular league and soccer as the world’s most popular sport.
And all this has happened as Donald Sterling has been Donald Sterling and everyone has known it. This isn’t the first time Sterling has expressed an allergy toward the race of the vast majority of his employees. Deadspin has a good chronicle of Sterling’s past antics: deploying the n-word; spouting crap about Mexicans and Koreans; analogizing his team to a “Southern Plantation.” Five years ago, he settled the largest federal housing discrimination lawsuit ever after the Justice Department accused him of evicting blacks and Latinos from his properties. (My colleague Isaac Chotiner makes the excellent point that some of these actions should have gotten more attention than they did, and than these recent comments have.)
Which is why the Sterling controversy ultimately can’t be made the players’ or fans’ problem. The suggestion has been proffered that fans should boycott the Clippers. The Clippers’ players themselves considered boycotting, ending a potential title run in order to send a message to their boss. They wisely decided to go for the championship instead (they did make a statement before their game Sunday, warming up in logo-less red shirts). We should be cheering them on. It is up to the owners to do the right thing. They are the ones who enabled and abetted Sterling for so long. They’ve made this bed and they get to lie in it, so it’s their job to wash the sheets.
The owners are going to do the right thing. How do I know? Partly because the owners have already started to speak out. Joining Jordan and Magic Johnson—who made hundreds of millions after his playing career concluded, and is an L.A. Dodgers minority owner—in their condemnations of Sterling this weekend were Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt. Arison owns the cruise-ship company responsible for that fatal Italian shipwreck. Holt is a major Rick Perry donor. No matter their personal views on a wide array of issues, though, they have no choice but to be embarrassed, to placate their players, and to clean house.
And I know the owners will do the right thing because, again, the NBA is already the most progressive, even avant-garde sports association on the planet. To an extent unequaled by other leagues, many of the newer owners are savvy men (yes, true, it’s virtually all men) who made money via actual intellect and now run model organizations—Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, Robert Pera of the Memphis Grizzlies, and Joe Lacob of the Golden State Warriors are three such owners, whose teams are currently in the playoffs, who immediately come to mind. Visit NBA.com/stats, and you will see the league treating you to an astonishing array of information gleaned from technology that originated with an Israeli missile-defense system, sprinkled with the most advanced of analytics. Visit NBA.com/style, and you will witness the fuddy-duddys who run the league wholeheartedly endorsing all the wackily tasteful (or tastefully wacky?) player clothing choices that have become in vogue to players partly because, in an originally condescending but ultimately liberal gesture, the league forced players to start dressing up.
The more interesting question than what happens next to Sterling is what happens next in the NBA management-labor seesaw. The players have only recently realized just how much power they have. The latest collective bargaining agreement, inked in 2011 following a lockout, actually decreased the player’s share of league profit from 57 percent to 50 percent. Even though all of the NBA’s revenue—from the multi-billion-dollar broadcast deals right down to the $5 popcorns—comes from fans’ desire to watch the players, it’s the owners who initially had billions at their disposal and now have the franchises in their names, and therefore, as with every other labor dispute in America, they were the ones with the upper hand during the labor strife and going forward are the ones who stand the most to gain and the least to lose. That may change when the CBA expires in 2022, or in 2017, when either side can opt out.
It is unclear how directly the 29 other owners and commissioner Adam Silver can force Sterling to divest the Clippers (among other obstacles, the league constitution is secret—which is some, like, pre–World War One, imperial Europe-type stuff here). But here is a bet for any takers: Someone else will own the Clippers this time next year. The NBA is going to be fine—better, in fact, since Donald Sterling will no longer have anything to do with it. The best thing that could come out of this spectacle would be for the league’s hundreds of millions of fans around the world to watch the owners take out one of their own rather than risk upsetting the source of so much of their wealth. It will tell us something unmistakable about who has the right and the ability to call the shots.
CORRECTION: An earlier version reported that Michael Jordan was the first black owner. He is the second, preceded by his predecessor in Charlotte, Bob Johnson.