The Donald Sterling lifetime banishment from the NBA at worst serves as a sad moment. At best, it could spark a long-needed movement.
“That remains to be seen,” stated Alexis McCombs, a frequent sports and entertainment contributor for several magazines, including Black Enterprise, regarding the true import of the incident. She was in Los Angeles last week when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver declared Sterling a permanent persona non grata and talked to the MSR by phone. “I think the severity of [Sterling’s] comments is not only a black eye in sports but also to race relations in this country,” observed McCombs.
Let’s move, however, past whether Sterling’s Candid Camera-like moment other than to observe that sometimes what’s said in the dark comes into the light. But was the May-December conversation between him and his much younger girlfriend only a public sampling of the “plantation mentality” that New York Times Columnist William C. Rhoden discussed in the tenth chapter of his 2006’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves book? He wrote that pro basketball is plantation-like, with over 76 percent of its players Black while the team owners are 98 percent White.
That mentality was seen and heard from Cleveland Cavs owner Daniel Gilbert after LeBron James had the gall to exercise his free agent rights and signed with Miami. The owner all but sounded like the Vic Morrow character in Roots.
And even if the other 27 White owners, now minus Sterling, are so-called benevolent, they still are owners and the players still are highly-paid employees whose mere presence adds value to the team every single day.
“Without the players, that value becomes nonexistent,” said McCombs.
W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that the only way to “cripple” wealthy bigots such as Sterling is to hit them where it most hurts – in their wallets. If it was true that at least one if not four playoff teams had discussed a possible walkout if Silver hadn’t acted as he did, this would have been a movement starter.
“I’m hoping it is the start of something much larger than simply talking about one old bigot,” said Fox News Political Commentator Juan Williams, who last weekend while in town told the MSR that having Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson serve as mediator in the Sterling mess was a good sign: “They [the players] ultimately were able to put pressure on the commissioner to get a result,” surmised Williams.
If these players only realize how much untapped influence they have, how much they could leverage real power-sharing with the owners. “If their only concern is their paycheck and the game, they don’t understand what is going on here,” continued Williams. “They have an opportunity to begin to act as power players in a political sense. They have the means and the voice to impact society. Will they use it? Let’s see.”
Instead we get players wearing their warm-ups inside out in silent protest. What the Clippers players did doesn’t even come close to what John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in 1968 or what Muhammad Ali did a year before that. Those were transformative moments with a price paid.
Instead we get sports commentators calling Silver’s act a watershed moment in sports, which takes hyperbole to a new low.
Meanwhile, the NBA’s billionaire club remains as White and exclusive as ever, save for Charlotte owner Michael Jordan, but don’t expect any castle revolts from him. And the present plantation environment remains intact as well.
Once again the Black players squandered a golden opportunity to move from moment gazing to real power sharing.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.