Widgets Magazine


Do The Right Thing, Mr. Silver

Los Angeles is a city eternally at odds with itself. It’s regional, it’s stratified and it’s divided in every conceivable way. In the capital of Southern California, little unites us; down to our professional sports teams, of which there are either two or none in each major sport, we have no common banner to fly. Living in the western suburbs, places like Long Beach might as well be on Mars, and I certainly go there about as often. The only thing Angelinos can agree on is that Donald Sterling is an asshole.

I grew up reading advertisements in the Los Angeles Times about Sterling’s philanthropy, his property developments and even from time to time his ill-fated toy, the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. The Clippers were not very good, and Sterling was known as a cheapskate owner, but that didn’t differentiate him from many of the men that dominated the NBA. As far as I was concerned, Sterling was the most boring prominent businessman in America.

As I grew older, I learned some of the things that every person in Los Angeles eventually learns. Sterling is not a pleasant guy.

In 2006, Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination in his apartment buildings — favoring Koreans at the expense of blacks and Hispanics. Although Sterling settled the case, a California district court pointedly referred to Sterling’s legal team as “often unacceptable, and sometimes outrageous.” Choice alleged Sterling quotes include “[Mexican-Americans] just sit around and smoke and drink all day,” “[Black people] smell,” and “[Koreans] will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent.”

In 2009, former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling, claiming that Sterling told Baylor he wanted a team with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” In the same lawsuit, Baylor claimed that Sterling would take female guests into the Clippers locker room and tell them to admire the “beautiful black bodies.”

And of course, the latest Donald Sterling news is a recording released by TMZ, in which a man claimed to be Sterling tells his girlfriend, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.”

For the sake of brevity, I will pass over the other embarrassing Sterling stories. I pass over Sterling heckling Clippers players from his courtside seats. I will overlook the fact that Sterling’s Clippers deliberately undercounted their own statistics to lower the market value of their own players. I am even forced to ignore the time when Sterling welched on a promise to assist the homeless of Skid Row.

And while there’s been plenty of justified outrage during the recording controversy – the Clippers protested at their playoff game on Sunday, and every NBA figure from Michael Jordan to Jalen Rose has criticized Sterling for his alleged remarks — I’m going to make a point here that I don’t think many people have touched upon. NBA commissioner Adam Silver condemned the recording but also talked about due process, and certainly in a court of law it would be hard to convict Sterling for anything. Was it Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend to stop associating with black people? We don’t know. But given Sterling’s history, it’s certainly something you would expect.

The reaction to the recording is clear: In NBA circles, the name Donald Sterling is so odious that when it comes to racism, Sterling no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. Why did people immediately condemn him, even though the recording hasn’t been verified? Because we already knew that Donald Sterling is prejudiced. Whether or not this recording is real is irrelevant. It has given people an excuse to condemn a man that nobody in the past had sufficiently condemned.

Regardless of Sterling’s history, the Clippers gave Sterling a respectability that few other institutions on earth could match. They didn’t wipe away his sins — they simply redefined him. When we focused our ire on Sterling, it was for not spending money or for hiring the wrong people. If we thought of a man with only Sterling’s personal and business history, he would be a pariah. But even though we nodded at Sterling’s racial indiscretions from time to time, his social status was entirely defined by his ownership of the Clippers.

Perhaps inherent to the issue was a problem of scale: When Sterling settled the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in history — a bit under $8 million, counting lawyer’s fees — the money still only amounted to a sixth of the Corey Maggette contract. Wikipedia isn’t the best source in the world, but it does reflect to a certain extent the biases of the people who write for it, and despite Sterling’s fortune, his business activities are utterly dwarfed by his controversies and, most importantly, his tenure at the Clippers. The Paul Allens and the Jim Dolans — the industry titans who are more famous for the businesses they served than for the teams they own — are few and far between. We don’t think about Peter Holt’s Caterpillar dealership; we think of the San Antonio Spurs. Ditto for Jerry Reinsdorf and the Chicago Bulls. And by the time he died, nobody in L.A. knew what else Jerry Buss did for a living anymore.

But the same issues that relate to race apply to racists as well. Chris Paul doesn’t stop being black because he plays for the Clippers. Richard Sherman doesn’t stop being black because he went to Stanford. And with all due respect to due process, Donald Sterling doesn’t stop being a racist because he owns a professional basketball team.

As an Angelino, given Sterling’s record of racist indiscretions, it’s more than easy to think big deal, Sterling’s a racist and move on. I’ve been doing that for 19 years. We certainly don’t live in a post-racial society, and although we’ve made racism taboo in many circles, prejudice is still something that people see every day.

Sterling’s racism isn’t viscerally overwhelming, to be sure. As a basketball fan, the shadow that Donald Sterling has cast on Los Angeles for a generation has traditionally failed to command my attention. I think that the Clippers are a historically terrible team, I think that they play entertaining basketball and I think they have some extraordinarily marketable stars. But though I certainly think of the Los Angeles Clippers when I think of Donald Sterling, I don’t think of Donald Sterling when I think of the Los Angeles Clippers.

So can we move on? Without a doubt. If Clippers players leave the team because of this, they’ll just go back to being terrible, as they always have. And no NBA commissioner has ever forced one of his owners to sell their team.

But should we move on? No. Absolutely not. We have to act: Our silence has condemned us long enough. Boycott Clippers games. Jam the NBA phone lines. Burn every bit of Clippers merchandise in sight.

Evicting Sterling from the NBA ownership club won’t change the prejudice that people face every day, whether in America or abroad — and to be clear, whites are subjected to plenty of prejudice in other nations on the globe, so this problem concerns whites too. But signals tend to snowball. And the first step is simple: All we have to do to is make sure that if Donald Sterling wants to be this viciously prejudiced, he will have to pay the price.


Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.
  • solfy

    capital of southern caliornia?….gonna assume your editor glossed over that one…

  • areader

    Calling LA the capital of Southern California was just a metaphor, an expression. It may have been better if the author would put ” ” on the word “capital”.
    The important thing is that the NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced his decision today to ban Sterling for life from NBA, including banning him from attending any NBA games in the future. Silver’s decision will practically force Sterling to sell his ownership of the LA Clippers.
    Silver’s decision effectively answers the call by the author, shared by many others that “if Donald Sterling wants to be his viciously prejudiced, he will have to pay the price.” I appreciate that the author had voiced his view so forcefully.