In a scandal that has rocked the American sporting world, David Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, was caught on tape excoriating his girlfriend for associating with black people.
Thankfully, unlike the many sporting organisations worldwide who have dragged their feet in similar circumstances, the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) responded quickly. He used the full extent of League regulations to ban Sterling from the NBA for life, and fine him the maximum penalty allowed: $2.5m, a drop in the bucket compared to the profits made by owners.
To protest the actions of the disgraced Sterling, Clippers players discussed boycotting their first game after his comments came to light. But they decided to shed their team jerseys and turned their practice jerseys inside-out during warm-ups. The sanctions on Sterling were issued before the Clippers’ subsequent play-off game with the Golden State Warriors; the Warriors had discussed boycotting the game if he was not punished.
Racism has been allowed to flourish in American sport too often and for too long; think of the use of racist logos, mascots and team names in the National Football League (the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs) and Major League Baseball (the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves). Racist mascots and logos have gone global as well, the Exeter Chiefs being an English example. Ironically, the Clippers shed their racist name of Buffalo Braves when the team moved to San Diego in 1978.
What we have seen in the Sterling case is a swift and decisive response to racism and it should give us some hope. But the sentiments Sterling voiced are ones I have heard all too many times in private settings around the world – and sadly, often in sporting environments.
It’s not hard to see why. The structure of professional sport separates players from spectators: many crowds at professional and commercialised university sports as well as management, coaches and owners in US sport are white, while African-Americans predominate as athletes in basketball and American football, and Latinos participate in large numbers in baseball and soccer. Owners too often view their players as commodities that can be used to grow profits and shore up brand value.
Sterling bought the Clippers for US$12.5 million in 1981, and the franchise is now estimated to be worth at least US$575m. Though banned for life from the NBA and under orders to sell the team, Sterling will likely collect a tidy profit from his years of ownership.
Sporting organisations must hold true to the sporting ideal of a level playing field, something which is all too rarely practiced.
As we build cathedrals of modern sport for national and international events, we often displace thousands or even millions of people who cannot afford to participate. That’s what happened when the Olympics came to Beijing and is happening in Rio.
We cannot stop at policing racism as we pursue social justice on our playing fields and courts. The impulse to avoid change “because that’s how we have always done it” has been discredited time and again by advances in sport: look at the participation of women in virtually every sporting activity, the end of overt sporting segregation, and the development of sporting opportunities for physically challenged bodies. All these show us that a morally objectionable status quo can and should be challenged.
Sports leagues around the world can learn a lot from the NBA’s actions against Sterling. The creation and enforcement of anti-racism policies is only a beginning. If we want true social justice – where all are valued, not just those who wield economic, social or political power – taking a bold stand as the NBA did is a good place to start.