Less than Sterling

799px-Los_Angeles_Clippers_logoGifted with an opportunity to seize and shape a defining moment in their sport’s history, they pondered and met and schemed. They geared up and took aim. And on Sunday night in Oakland, the players of the Los Angeles Clippers shot a figurative air ball.

Wading amid the cultural rip tide created by their owner, Donald Sterling, his most prized employees assembled on the court before their playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, and deposited their warmup jackets in a pile to reveal practice shirts turned inside out, hiding the team logo. But, when push came to shove, they reported dutifully for the opening tip, played and lost a game, and not even for a second did the NBA cash machine cease dispensing dollars.

So, for an extremely critical news cycle, the toxic, racist comments attributed to Sterling provoked no repercussions of substance.

There was outrage, of course. The vast One-Nameness – Magic (Johnson), Michael (Jordan) and Lebron (James) – stepped forward. But such is the mathematics of our times: Outrage minus a hit to the pocketbook equals meaningless gesture.

What better way to stress the unacceptability of Sterling’s rant than to deprive 19,596 live, plus a national broadcast audience, and countless corporate sponsors, of gold-gilded, postseason bliss? However, B-O-Y-C-O-T-T, it seems, is a relic notion, and the faded images of Cesar Chavez and grapes, and buses in Montgomery, might as well have been rendered by an Instagram filter, since none feels relevant to a generation that figures the power that be already has been fought.

If that were true, then why does the soundtrack for race and sports play like a skipping record that no one even hears anymore? “You get used to it,” people say. Same ole, same ole.

Not me. Each transgression, each despicable revelation, still feels like a fresh wound. And today feels like so many yesterdays.

I couldn’t get used to asking someone at a small-town city hall about a black neighborhood and hearing, “You are looking for Niggertown.” Or an athlete who told me that he doesn’t “talk to Japs.” Or people sending me death threats because out of solidarity with a black player named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, I refused for most of an NBA season to stand for the national anthem.

And certainly I never got used to the racist underside of Linsanity, when even the media outlet for which I worked posted a “Chink in the Armor” headline over a story about Jeremy Lin.

Painful as it is, I prefer renewed outrage to numb and dangerous indifference. Many like to call this a post-racial society, but, truth is, instead of disappearing, race simply has become a subject too awkward and daunting to discuss in any mainstream manner. And the consequences are just regress disguised as progress.

It’s wrong to assume a legacy of championing race issues in sports. The likes of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were a product of a time when civil rights activism was peaking in society at large, and in a way were a logical subset. Still, it’s hard to view Sunday night as anything but the Clipper players kicking one away. Couldn’t they for once have peered past their own sneakers? Sterling certainly won’t survive this, but whatever actions the NBA and its owners take will feel familiar, like the power structure making a benevolent gesture – nothing resembling real change. The victims will once again have ceded control of an issue’s outcome.

That’s why we’re here, after all, still kicking the can that is Sterling’s decades-long, David-Stern-enabled rampage of racism and misogyny. This hasn’t been the league’s “dirty, little secret,” as some pundits have termed it. This has been a mole on the NBA’s nose, treated like an open fly, with whispered warnings, the better to avoid embarrassing anyone.

So if the players and their coach, Doc Rivers, himself a former Clip, are going to hang their inaction upon the hook of due process, c’mon. The stench has persisted so long, there’s no more alleging the presence of a cesspool in Clipperland. This is just the latest stink.

During my embryonic days as an NBA reporter, and Sterling’s as an owner, I was regaled with tales from former Clipper players of basic mistreatment and payroll malfeasance. A star guard named Norm Nixon once was so desperate to escape Sterling’s grasp, he and his agent lobbied me with fullcourt earnestness because the team I covered, the Sonics, showed interest in being a trade partner. The ensuing litany of Sterling’s racial and gender intolerance, exercised in the workplace and business arena, are a matter of public record and has been so transparent for so long that Rivers or anyone connected with the NBA for more than a second cannot claim ignorance without coming off as highly disingenuous.

This was more than 30 years of everybody-knew-but-nobody-did-anything bullshit. It became so ingrained and taken for granted, the NAACP very nearly honored Sterling for a third time; the last coming while he was embroiled in a discrimination suit by former general manager Elgin Baylor and under fire for housing discrimination. These days, people reflexively are grabbing for the same, tired excuses, most taking various forms of why-allow-one-person-to-spoil-everyone-else’s-fun-ism.

The Clippers can claim they’ve never been so close, under Sterling – ever, really – to contending for an NBA championship. No one will dispute that. But it’s difficult not to see that chasing a ring pales in comparison to helping eradicate a bigoted scourge. Their long-term vision failing them, the Clipper players may very well have ensured that once the weed of Donald Sterling is removed, as expected, another eventually will grow in its place.

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