Sterling, Silver, and the State of Racism in the NBA

Once hailed as the worst and least interesting professional team in the sports world, the Los Angeles Clippers found themselves all over the news in April. Despite their remarkable performance in the NBA playoffs, the franchise’s newfound limelight quickly shifted their highlights on the court to the off-court actions of their owner.

photo courtesy of BlackBook via Creative Commons

photo courtesy of BlackBook via Creative Commons

Donald Sterling, in conversation with his girlfriend, expressed his discontent of her posting pictures on Instagram with black athletes Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson and bringing them to Clipper games.

The billionaire also included a slew of bigoted comments that made headlines when recorded conversation was released.

Immediately, the tape sparked outrage. Not wanting to be associated with the Clippers’ image, sponsors withdrew advertisements in the franchise’s home stadium.

The players on the team, of which twelve out of fourteen are African-American, quietly protested by wearing their warm- up jerseys inside out, hiding the scarlet Clippers logo. Players on other teams too threatened not to play so long as Sterling was still an authoritative figure in basketball.

Pressed for immediate action, the NBA quickly punished Sterling. Commissioner Adam Silver issued a hefty 2.5 million dollar fine, as well as an even heftier lifetime ban from the NBA.

The Association also strongly encouraged Sterling to sell the Clippers franchise, which would effectively banish him from professional basketball for the rest of his life.

As the scandal of Sterling- gate dies down, basketball fans and egalitarians alike see the NBA’s reaction as a victory for racial equality for basketball, as well as American professional sports principally.

However, it also represents a small piece in a process of a persisting movement to exterminate once-prevalent racism in professional sports.

Unlike other American sports, the National Basketball Association has included ethnically diverse athletes since its inception.

Though it was only founded in 1946, the NBA included its first athlete of color, Wataru Misaka, in 1947, and the Washington Capitols signed the first African-American basketball player, Harold Hunter, in 1950.

It only took one season for the NBA to include a non- white athlete; by contrast, the National Football League took 26 seasons since its beginning to finally incorporate its first African- American player, while Major League Baseball took 46 seasons. This inclusion of athletes of color has since developed, and today the players of the NBA are extremely diverse. Elite Sports Data found that the NBA has 438 players, of which 84 were born in 44 different countries outside of the United States and Canada. This ranks the NBA second in diversity out of the five major league sports in the United States, after Major League Soccer. According to the 2013 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card, 76.3% of players are African-American, and 81% are of color.

The NBA has also made efforts to ease racial tension that had plagued the organization in the past. In 2013, the association received an A grade in its racial hiring practices, with an A+ in the race category. Even since the 2012- 2013 season, the NBA has also increased its hiring of ethnically diverse staff professionals by 1.7%, people in administration positions by 3.1%, and team physicians by 0.2%.

When comparing the NBA to other sports associations, it is evident that the NBA has made far more progress in manifesting racial equality than any other American professional sports association.

Dr. Michael Friedman of Psychology Today praised the NBA’s swift actions in removing Donald Sterling, comparing them to the NFL’s perpetual issue of the Washington Redskins franchise, whose name continues to be an extremely offensive term for Native Americans.

Despite pressure from extensive protests for a name- change, the Redskins franchise has remained absolutely resistant to any adjustment.

The NBA also fares better than other sports in gender hiring, according to the 2013 Gender and Racial Report Card by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports, receiving an A- in the category, as opposed to the B- received by the National Football League, the B+ received by Major League Baseball, and the B received by college athletics.

According to the same report, the NBA has the highest percentage of people of color for players, coaches, owners, and league staff office members than the NFL and MLB.

The NBA is one of the few public sports institutions whose core consists of more than just one ethnic group. So instead of considering Donald Sterling’s evident racism as an example of the state of the leadership in the NBA, consider it another brick removed from the crumbling fortress of racism in professional sports.

Although his actions are unexcusable, Sterling was born in a previous era; 1934 was a time when racism was acceptable and approved in the United States. He was 30 when the Civil Rights Act passed, and likely, had long since developed and set his morals.

Were the punishments for Sterling that Adam Silver distributed appropriate?

Yes. Were the punishments only intended to impact Sterling? No. By issuing such brutal consequences, Silver set a precedent for the future of the NBA. Two and a half million dollars is pocket change for Sterling; that amount is just one tenth of a percent of his total net worth of 1.9 billion dollars.

However, his prosecution exemplifies the consequences that follow racism in the NBA. Sterling’s lifetime ban carries a much greater weight. It is just a reminder to the league, and the world of professional American sports, that racism should not, and will not be tolerated any longer.

Is racism tolerated in the NBA? Clearly, the answer is absolutely not. But what we have to consider is the significant progress that professional basketball has made to be as inclusive and racially diverse as possible.

In fact, the NBA should be rendered as an excellent model of how to address racism in a well-known institution. Though the National Basketball Association was founded in a time where blatant racism was fairly common, and public, we have to admire the association for nearly 70 years of clear progress in abolishing institutionalized racial inequality.

Donald Sterling is not a primary example of the state of the NBA; he is merely one of the remaining pieces of a mindset that the sport has since moved past.

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About Cole Crawford

Cole Crawford is a senior in his third year with The Paper Tiger; he currently serves as the Tiger's Managing Editor and Centerspread Editor. Crawford primarily writes about the Lick community, sports, and politics. He is 6' 4".

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