By now you’ve read, heard, and debated the racially-charged comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling. At best, the comments are the result of a delusional old man staring senility in the face. I mean, he’s telling his half African-American girlfriend to not take pictures with African-Americans or show up with them at Clippers’ games. Really dude? At worse, the comments provide a glimpse into the mind of a bigot who truly believes that the African-American men who work tirelessly to bring glory to his organization are inferior to him because of the color of their skin. Either way, the comments are awful. What’s more awful, however, is the fact that his sentiments aren’t unique. In fact, the Sterling fiasco reminds me (and I use the term “reminds” very loosely since I wasn’t even a teenager in the early nineties) of another team owner who made headlines for harboring racist beliefs, Marge Schott.
Good ol’ Marge was the owner of the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999. Remarkably, she was only the third woman to own a North American major-league team without inheriting it. Girlfriend had big money. Sadly, she isn’t so much remembered for the strides she made for women in sports but for how much of a blatant, outright bigot she was. Womp, womp. After years of making disparaging comments towards African-Americans, Jews, Japanese and homosexuals, Schott was banned from managing the Reds from 1996 through 1998 for her public support of Adolf Hitler. Schott was indeed a character of epic proportions. She admitted to calling two African-American outfielders, Eric Davis and Dave Parker, her “million dollar n*****s.” She admitted that she kept a Nazi swastika armband at home, but only to honor the memory of her late husband. *Rolls eyes* She referred to homosexuals as fruits, and she just couldn’t see why the term “Jap” was offensive. She made Sterling look like a saint.
What’s most surprising to me about these two is not that they’re racist. I spent most of my childhood in South Carolina, so I’ve been confronted with racism a time or two. And I know that racism exists in every part of this country. No, their beliefs don’t surprise me at all. What’s most surprising (and at the same time disheartening) is how long major league organizations tolerate such people. League insiders surrounding both owners have been and were clear that the owners’ beliefs and comments were no secret to those who worked with and for the owners. Realistically, no one goes from being a silent bigot year after year to just exploding and saying seriously offensive things overnight. Major leagues know what kind of people sit in owners’ boxes and front offices, but as long as they keep their unpopular beliefs relatively quiet, it can be business as usual. It appears that if it hadn’t been for pretty significant law suits against both owners, the greater public may not have known about their beliefs. The players and other employees of those organizations would have continued to “suffer” in silence.*
Yes, the leagues’ acceptance of racism and bigotry is surprising, but it really shouldn’t be. The leagues (even though they may have tax exempt status), like the vast majority of American companies, exist to sell their products and in turn make a profit. So as long as a players, coaches, executives and owners don’t do things to damage the leagues’ brands and bottom lines, people can say and do as they please…it’ll be business as usual. The NBA, like the MLB did with Schott, can (and probably will) suspend Sterling and strongly encourage him to sell the franchise, but that really doesn’t do much. Sterling will turn a profit when he sells, he won’t change his beliefs, and bigots will still be bigots.
The people who really have the power, in my humble opinion, to effect any sort of change are the athletes and the fans. Once the leagues quiet the grumbles and prove that racism will not be tolerated (insert another eye roll), it will be tolerated again and again…and again. It will be tolerated in board rooms across the country. It will show up in secret conversations, negotiations and in hirings and firings, but the leagues and individual teams will still make money, so nothing will really change.** But if the players first, followed by their supportive fans, decided to take drastic, epic measures like boycotting and starting their own leagues, things would certainly change. No longer would players, league employees and fans be subjected to the biases of filthy-rich owners who literally own teams for sport. Owners couldn’t get rich off of players or they’d quickly figure out a way to filter out bigotry. Players could run, jump, throw and catch on their own terms without wondering what the team owner really thought about them, and fans just might get a better experience. The millionaires would defeat the billionaires. It would be nothing short of miraculous and fun, and I would pay to see every minute of it. It’ll also probably never happen.
Above worrying about the beliefs of their respective teams’ owners, players just want to play in the most famous leagues on the planet. They want to win championships. They want fat checks. Fans want to see athletic prowess that nears the power and strength of superheroes. They just want to go to the game, grab a beer and root for their favorite teams. So players and fans will be satisfied with leagues when they shut down the occasional outlier, and things will go back to business as usual.
*I put suffer in quotation marks because it can easily be argued that one is forcing anyone to work for those organizations and that they “suffer” because they are willing to subject themselves to working for such people.
**I just learned that a few sponsors have pulled and are considering pulling their sponsorship for the LA Clippers. That’s pretty major, but I’m sure the sponsors will be back once the NBA finds a way to smooth things over.