Not So Sterling

In January 2005, Harvard President Larry Summers made some observations about the proportional lack of women in the upper echelons of academia. First, he stated that women are too busy being mommies to devote the 80-plus hours a week necessary to achieve standing in the academy. Second, he stated, in the most obtuse language possible, that men reached greater achievement in math and science because men and women have “innate differences.” In other words, men are good at math and science because they were born that way. Sorry, ladies.

Needless to say, these comments caused a well deserved fire storm, with the faculty, student body, and the Harvard governing board up in arms. As a result, Mr. Summers resigned as Harvard president the following year.

These remarks regained attention some eight years later, when Mr. Summers’ name came up as a possible candidate for chairman of the Federal Reserve Board to replace the retiring Ben Bernanke. Typical is this article from the National Journal, which published an extended excerpt of the remarks. The article then questions whether his words would come back to haunt him. They did. He withdrew his name from consideration, before even being officially tapped.

His bigotry came back to bite him in the ass. He thought he did not say anything offensive — patronizingly saying, “I’d love to be proven wrong.” Privilege blinded him from knowing what sort of fire-storm he created, from knowing that the world has changed and continues to change in terms of the access women have in many fields. Mr. Summers did not know that he lived in a world where such bigotry is not tolerated.

I expect that Clippers owner Donald Sterling lives in a similar frame of thought, where his privilege has blinded him so severely that he is not aware of his bigotry, nor aware that such bigotry is no longer condoned or simply swept under the rug. In Mr. Sterling’s world, he can employ black folks, lots of black folks, but that doesn’t mean he has to associate with them. Back in the day, this attitude fortified Jim Crow laws. Black entertainers from William “Bojangles” Robinson to Sammy Davis, Jr., from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington spent most or all of their careers not able to patronize the various bars, clubs, resorts, and hotels where they performed. They had to slip in the back, and then slip right back out when the gig was over.

Mr. Sterling still seems to live in such a world. Granted, this aspect of his nature came into sharp focus via a private conversation that he more than like did not know was being recorded. But he never come out to refute his comments, apologize for them, or anything. Indeed, in another leaked comment, where his girlfriend challenged his bigotry, he apparently mounted a 5-cent defense, saying that he pays his black staff good money. So clearly he does not understand, he is incapable of understanding the gravity of his remarks, how offensive they are, and how demoralizing they are for his team as they try to concentrate on a high stakes playoff series.

The stakes for solving this problem were high. How high? Players threatened to boycott April 29th’s games. Many high profile companies (Mercedes Benz, State Farm, CarMax, to name a few) announced that they are ending or at least “suspending” their sponsorship of the Clippers. Fans planned to picket in front of Staples Center in LA, the site of the Clippers next game against the Golden State Warriors.

Fortunately for everyone, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver rose to the occasion. He banned Mr. Sterling from basketball for life. He fined Mr. Sterling $2.5 million. And he’s urging the NBA Board of Governors to force Mr. Sterling to sell the team. Given that Mr. Sterling can no long attend games or have any contact with anyone in the NBA every again, including members of the franchise he owns, selling would appear to be his only answer.

Commissioner Silver got it 100% correct. He had to protect the organization. When Michael Richards has his “nigger” moment some years ago, Gerry Seinfeld flew into damage control mode. As it happened, a new DVD set of Seinfeld episodes was to be released around that time, so the last thing Mr. Seinfeld needed was bad press, involving the N-word, no less. I’m sure he was as offended by the remarks as most everyone else, but he also had to protect his brand. No doubt under Seinfeld’s encouragement, Mr. Richards went on a long apology tour.

Judging from NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s account, Mr. Sterling’s comeuppance has been a long time coming. Some say that action should have been taken against the bigoted little man a long time ago. I can’t disagree with that. But I’m glad that the current Commissioner wasted no time in resolving this issue quickly and resolutely. Mr. Sterling will continue to live in his own universe, where it’s OK to disrespect African Americans. And if forced to sell the team he’s likely to make a substantial profit. But at least he’ll be unable to inflict his bigotry on anyone in basketball again.

Furthermore, the humiliation he received during this whole ordeal stands as a lesson for other well-heeled bigots out there, still lurking in the shadows. And that counts for something.

© 2014, gar. All rights reserved.

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