Say this much for Donald Sterling: In an era in which sinister motives are attached to any criticism of President Obama, the soon-to-be former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has reminded us all what real racism looks like.
Unfortunately, much of the reaction to the release of the recorded conversation between the 80-year-old billionaire and his 31-year-old “girlfriend” also reminded us what moral grandstanding, selective outrage and outright hypocrisy look like.
To be clear: Sterling neither deserves nor requires anybody's sympathy. In a business that depends upon public good will, advertising revenue and the free market for athletes – in the National Basketball Association, most of them black – he got what he deserved for telling V. Stiviano that it was OK to sleep with blacks so long as she did not publicly associate with them. The league's $2.5 million fine is chump change to him, and even if the NBA's lifetime ban forces Sterling to sell the team – the legality of which is murky – the recent success of his once-woeful team guarantees a huge profit.
So, for Sterling, perhaps “crime” really will pay, after all – his justifiably shattered
But the fact that his reputation was largely intact before this incident became public hints at a social disease that goes far beyond one man's racism.
It should not go unnoticed, for example, that the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP honored Sterling in 2009 – the same year in which the real estate magnate paid $2.7 million to settle federal claim that he had refused to rent his properties to minorities. The chapter was planning to honor Sterling again this year before the scandal broke – perhaps because he had reportedly given organization $45,000 over the past few years. No doubt by sheer coincidence, Chapter President Leon Jenkins – whose past was already clouded with allegations of legal and financial misconduct -- resigned this week.
It also should not go unnoticed that, for all the attention paid to Sterling's racist words, his dubious actions in other areas have received scarcely a word of condemnation. But, at the risk of sounding like a prude, Sterling remains married to his wife of 50 years, who earlier this year sued Stiviano for the return of two Bentleys, a Ferrari, a Range Rover and a $1.8 million apartment, claiming it was partially her property. That lawsuit, many believe, prompted Stiviano to record her conversation with Sterling in the first place.
It should not go unnoticed that other NBA sins – some of which have actually hurt people – have not resulted in lifetime banishment: the 1997 choking of his coach by Latrell Sprewell; all-star Kobe Bryant's 2011 reference to a referee as a “faggot”; an attack on Detroit fans by Indiana Pacers Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest in 2004; Gilbert Arenas' drawing of a gun on a fellow player; Clippers guard JJ Redick's contract with his girlfriend, which required her to have an abortion if she got pregnant, after which he would pay her $25,000.
That last item alludes to something else that was once not quite so common, inside the NBA or out: Magic Johnson, who once admitted to trying to “accommodate as many women as I could” -- contracted AIDS. Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the greatest player in NBA history, boasted of having slept with 20,000 women.
Such behavior is not confined to the NBA in particular or professional sports in general. But while the public has again shown appropriate revulsion at Sterling's racism – which does not indict all of America, no matter what the professional victim class claims – violence, cronyism, and the kind of indiscriminate, unprotected sex that produces real victims and real fatherless children receive little more than a shrug.
Is a rich codger's goofy racist rant than choking your coach or sluring gays instead of minorities? Perhaps the NBA's response to Sterling indicates a new level of accountability on all fronts. We will know soon enough, because human beings are incapable of perfection, on the court or off.
In the meantime, the inquisition really ought to be tempered with a little humility and introspection by everyone not qualified to cast the first stone.