On April 25, TMZ released a recording of Donald Sterling (owner of the Los Angeles Clippers) telling his girlfriend that he didn't want her bringing black people to his basketball games, this as the NBA itself is a predominantly black league, this as the Los Angeles Clippers has a black coach, this as the Los Angeles Clippers has only one American born white player and 12 black ones–Hedo Turkoglu is the odd man out here. Magic Johnson, who was mentioned in the tape, LeBron James, Jalen Rose, a number of sports commentators, even Michael Jordan, all came out against Sterling.
As did the internets.
I think flashpoint events like this are useful in at least two ways. For websites like TMZ, such events drive traffic–and again for the web traffic is almost everything. For people interested in racial politics both analytically and politically, instances like this go a long way into showing that things aren't really all that different.
But when something like this happens we tend to forego rich political analyses for simple ones that shed more heat than light, analytically and politically.
With that said here are ten thoughts, written in no particular order:
- Almost as soon as the tapes became public people began to compare the NBA Players to slaves. Of course there's a textual precedent here, and some evidence to support the claim. But NBA players are most decidedly not slaves. They have some control over their labor. They receive renumeration for their labor. In fact they even have a players union–which as someone I follow on social media noted, automatically gives them better labor politics than 88% of the American population. Now they are constrained in unique ways, but these constraints don't rise to slavery. I get the use of hyperbole to make a point, or to sell books. But particularly when we want players themselves to act with a certain type of political agency, such comparisons politically hurt our cause.
- Along the same lines (and I know I said there is no particular order here, but whatever) there's a type of disdain for labor when we suggest that all people like Chris Paul do is shoot a ball in a hoop, compared perhaps to people working low wage jobs in McDonalds, or to adjunct faculty members, or to any number of people who have to work to provide for themselves. In fact I'd go one step further and say there's a type of disdain for black labor here. To say that the only thing people like Paul do is "put a ball in a hoop" both ignores the work Paul put in at putting that ball in the hoop–work that's made Paul better at that act than more than 99% of us are at what we get paid to do–and ignores the fact that in contemporary society most of us do work that is, in effect, superfluous.
- The Clippers had two days to make a decision about how to respond to the tape. Two days. I tried to think of an example where some type of protest that had real life consequences for the people engaging in that protest, occurred with only two days preparation. I couldn't. Such examples likely exist…but I'm betting that each example we come up with came as the result of weeks, months, and in some cases years of political preparation. The Clippers didn't have that.
- Sterling's example does suggest that racism hasn't gone away–although we didn't really need to know this. But I'm so glad that people like Bomani Jones and other journalists wrote articles about Sterling's racism years before this event occurred. None of them knew when they wrote these articles that this would happen…but because of their groundwork it was relatively simple for people to link Sterling's current behavior to his past behavior. And then it was relatively simple for the players and contemporary journalists to ask the NBA why they hadn't acted on Sterling in the past. The seeds for future change are consistently planted in the present.
- I'm not surprised the Clippers lost…and although I haven't really been paying attention to the series (this year's playoffs have been compelling but I knew I wouldn't really be watching until the semi-finals at best) I don't think they're going to make it past the Warriors. Players like Paul and Blake Griffin have played in pressure packed situations before, but the pressure is usually driven by the game itself. I'm pretty sure their home-court advantage is going to be nullified, meaning that the three games they have remaining (if they get that far) are all going to be played as "away" games. Hard to overcome that.
- Particularly with the explosion of the internet I think there are a number of quality sports columnists out there. But, and I haven't said this in a while, I really wish Ralph Wiley were alive.
- Times like this provide an opportunity for rupture. But note what possibilities are still foreclosed. The "solution" for example is to remove Sterling as an ownwer, and to replace him with a coalition of minority owners–Magic Johnson for example. Putting aside how weird it would be to have Johnson associated with the Clippers given his long standing relationship with the L.A. Lakers, note how we're still taking the structure of ownership for granted. If the City of Los Angeles for example, owned the Clippers, what would that look like?
- I appreciate Jeff Van Gundy. Broadcasters are in a unique situation economically and politically. It's a lot easier to swap them out if they "go out of bounds" so to speak, because people don't really watch the game for the announcers (maybe baseball fans do but not basketball fans). And although they make money, they don't make nearly as much money as they do when they used to either play or coach. Even though one could argue that Van Gundy didn't go far enough in his stance against racism and in his critique of the league, he didn't have to, for example, suggest that the players owed it to themselves, to their children, to their family members, and to their communities, to stand up against racism.
- I also appreciate LeBron James, who didn't hesitate to suggest that the league doesn't have room for Sterling. James gets a bad rap for any number of reasons, but if I had to start a ball club with one player of any generation, he might not be my first (I'd probably go with a center like Bill Russell) but he'd be my second. He plays the game the right way, and he behaves the right way. If he can get four in a row I'm willing to make the case for him as the greatest non-center to ever play.
- Another take on the labor question. Every moment like this works as kind of a micro-crisis of sorts. We've got to take advantage of these micro-crises to put new ideas out there, and then to think through how the new tactical responses (no team in modern sports history has ever taken even the minor step the Clippers did) can be applied in other contexts.
- I know I said ten but sue me. Going back to the two days thing, this represents an excellent opportunity to think about how interests work, against a simplistic morality approach. Let's say that every player on the team AND the coach, wanted to "do something". Players like Paul and Griffin have job security…but players like Turkoglu (who may not even be an American citizen) don't. On the other hand players like Paul and Griffin are arguably going to be defined by the number of rings they get, while someone like Jamal Crawford (go blue) will not. And then while the black players have a direct interest in contesting what happened, someone like J J Redick might not. So even if we concede the possibility that they ALL wanted to "do something" what that "something" ends up being, are going to be shaped by their interests far more than their racial morality.