Monday, June 2, 2014

The Donald Sterling Problem

The NBA has a problem. Many think that their problem is Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise. Or perhaps their problem is with Shelly Sterling, Donald’s wife who has emerged as a feisty, combative wildcard. Maybe their problem is about race relations given that a high percentage of players and fans are black, and yet blacks are under-represented in the upper echelons of coaching, management, league leadership, and ownership. My contention is that none of these are truly the heart of the issue, none are the reason why this situation has made America so uncomfortable with race.

About Race

Donald Sterling's problem is NOT that he is racist. It is that he is despicable.

Let’s tackle that last part, the part about race, first. My comments on race may sound controversial, so hang on:

Donald Sterling’s problem is NOT that he is racist.

Donald Sterling’s problem is that he is despicable.

And those are two different things.

Let me explain with complete clarity and candor: I am racist. Before you close this page, hear me out. I am racist because everyone is racist. Michael Jordan admitted to being racist. Mark Cuban is a racist. Adam Silver is most definitely racist. Magic Johnson is racist. Deep down, you know that you, too, are racist.

What is racism? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines racism as “1: a belief that RACE is the primary DETERMINANT of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2: racial PREJUDICE or discrimination”. Those words, primary determinant of human traits, are strong. That means that a racist believes that all-else held equal, race will determine a person’s aptitude, or attitude, or ability. The problem with this definition? Its absolutism. There is no margin for error. A racist is just that – a racist.

I disagree with this definition of racism. I think racism is an issue of degrees, or the belief that race can be “a” determinant of traits and capacities” not “the primary determinant” of such. Racism in that context is part of how we, as organisms, interpret the world. Our world is filled with such great stimuli that to fully contemplate the nature and reality of everyone and everything we encounter would be paralyzing. Instead, our brains are designed to sort, organize, filter, and collate.

Nowhere is this process more evident than in athletics. It’s such a natural process that it doesn’t have to be taught, even to young children lining up on the playground. Some kids just look more athletic. Wide shoulders, bulging biceps, strong calves. Fat kids definitely don’t get picked. Taller kids are presumed to be assets. Nobody wants to pick a girl (sexism). The kid that looks different? That’s me – avoid me. Unless I'm black, in which case I may be the best athlete of all. This isn’t racism. It’s natural selection.

I have experienced racism in many ways, but none as poignant as what I experienced on my high school basketball team. I am Asian and went to high school in a small city in the Rockies (hint: blue turf). My freshman year, I was the best shooter and perimeter defender on the team (really exaggerating - I admit to having no handle or ability to pass, both kind of important for a point guard). But my white teammates took one look at me and guessed that I didn’t belong. They guessed that as an Asian, I was limited athletically and could not help them win. And they were right.

I never grew taller than 5’ 8”. I have never been able to leap and touch the rim. I could never take one dribble and get to the rack. I lacked the balance and strength to finish through contact. I was a horrible rebounder. And this wasn't due to lack of effort - I spent one summer living in the weight room, killed myself, and gained 10 pounds to 135. I lost it a month after school started. The racist snap-judgment my white teammates made allowed them to avoid investing in a teammate who would be useless to them down the road. I don’t mean to sound bitter. The fact this my white teammates acted exactly as they should have behaved. And if I were in their shoes, I would have handled me in the same way. Racism was real, and in my case it was right on the money.

About Prejudice

Our white teammates accepted him as a player because he looked the part...and he did not disappoint. Racism may not be equitable but in this case, it worked.

The second part to that Webster’s definition on racism: “racial PREJUDICE or discrimination.” After using race (and the associated skin color) to help guess at the traits and capabilities of others (and ourselves), we use that judgment to color our actions. You see a black kid? Toss him an alley-oop. White kid? Probably shoots well. And me? 

That freshman year, despite my shooting prowess, my white teammates froze me out on the court. That had a big impact on my development. I could have gained a handle and learned to pass. But a lack of trust from my teammates meant I was never going to see the floor as a point guard. I learned that if I couldn’t get the ball, the only way I’d get playing time would be by setting screens, playing defense, getting steals, hustling down shooters and drawing charges. I became an energy guy, someone who would come off the bench for 5 minutes a game for defense. This was a vicious cycle for an aspiring player – the more I didn’t get the ball, the more I didn’t look for my offense, feeding the notion that I was not to be trusted with the ball in the first place. But for the team, this effect of racial prejudice was a beneficial – my specialization allowed me to develop a unique skill set and avoid focusing on redundant attributes that weren’t my relative strengths. It was Charles Darwin meets Adam Smith.

The one guy who did trust me? The guy that fed me on the break, looked for me on cuts, and got me the ball in space? He was our only black guy. He was tall, long-limbed, strong, quick and could run like a gazelle. He was the first one of us to dunk in a game. He assisted on more of my field goals that season than the rest of the team combined (when you only attempt a few dozen field goals the entire year, you tend to remember the good ones). Our white teammates accepted him as a player because he looked the part and they deferred to his abilities on the court. He did not disappoint – he was our go-to everything, our LeBron. He was promoted to varsity early and won a state championship in his first year. Racism may not be equitable but in this case, it worked.

About Institutions

Many of us, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, are secretly uncomfortable with this undercurrent of whiteness that pervades our institutions. 

We’ve gone on quite a tangent. How does this tie back to Donald Sterling? I wanted to frame the argument by first positing that we live in a racial world. Donald Sterling is certainly cognizant of that and he acts on that judgment (and tells others how to act accordingly). In this he is no different from you or I. Think of the last time you made a judgment that turned out to be incorrect. Chances are you don’t have to go back very far. We all make decisions based on imperfect information, and sometimes, that information extends only as far as the way someone looks. But that doesn’t stop us from making those judgments again. In Sterling’s case, he is also a billionaire so we can assume that this behavior has in the least not dampened his success.

So why should you or I be upset about what an old Jewish guy says about blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities? Why the media firestorm? Are we all just incredible hypocrites, and if so, should we cut Donald some slack? I think society’s collective response (and it is collective to a large degree – some 92% of Americans seem to agree on this) says as much about modern institutions and our relationships with those institutions as who we are as individuals.

The President of the United States, possibly the most powerful person in the world, is black. The most renowned athlete of all time (Jordan) is black. An Indian (Satya Nadella) heads the one of world’s most powerful technology firms. An Asian (Jack Ma) is about to lead the biggest IPO in history. These may constitute evidence that our institutions are evolving, becoming more inclusive, but I think that minority figureheads mask how little the underlying institutions have changed.

If you look a level deeper at the organizations and institutions below these leaders of color, you find hierarchies that remain starkly white. Obama’s cabinet is mostly white. MJ’s executive team is mostly black but such is not the case throughout the NBA. Nadella is one of 2 people of color on the 10 member Microsoft board. The internet is a great democratizer, but Alibaba’s listing in the U.S. is meant to draw out money from banks and hedge funds, money that is overwhelmingly tied to white hands. America's Supreme Court is fairly diverse but our entire legal system is based on English common law - maybe that's a reason why democracy and its underpinnings in the courts tends to struggle in areas where the tribe is the center of society. Finally, perhaps most telling of all, Congress, meant to represent a body as diverse as America, is white to the core.

This whitewashing of institutions goes further than their personnel. Obama goes to meetings in a suit and tie – European trappings. The NBA instituted a dress code to stifle creativity and now many of its players wear neckties, too. Successful people in these organizations are expected to speak a certain way, as Richard Sherman found out. I wrote a piece about Richard Sherman defending his intelligence and his stature as a person but indicating that deriding others verbally is wrong. I don’t think many people were upset that Richard went after Michael Crabtree, but rather the way he sounded when doing so. Still, he used English, a white language (roots in Germanic and Latin) that is becoming the language of business around the globe.

I think many of us, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, are secretly uncomfortable with this undercurrent of whiteness that pervades our institutions. We're uncomfortable with the racial world we live in. When Sterling’s comments were aired, it was a striking and painful reminder for all races that this league that is so black is still dominated by whites. And that’s why Sterling’s been castigated, abandoned, and abhorred. He broke our trust in basketball the institution. Our institutions survive not because they work seamlessly, but because of our faith in them.

We believe in Mr. Obama not because he’s a superhero but because of the power of the presidency. In fact, some oppose Obama because they feel he has not acted in accord with the full powers and rights of that office; their respect for the presidency is supreme. We believe in the NBA because it represents a fair playing ground where the world’s best athletes can prove their dominance. We believe in Congress as the best solution to a difficult question. Perhaps more than anything, we believe in these institutions because we need to believe in them. They represent part of who we are. Americans are proud of our democracy and if Congress is the living apparatus by which it works, then by God we better be proud of them, too.


The NBA’s problem is its history, its structure and its future. That’s why there will always be another Donald Sterling. 

Donald Sterling doesn’t need me to defend him and to defend is not my intent. But let me throw this out: I think Sterling’s mistake wasn’t racism but was upsetting the delicate balance that allows us to believe in the NBA. He revealed what many of us suspect all along that the league is a plantation with overwhelmingly white owners running things. By doing so, he provoked outrage not only among the league’s players and fans, but it’s other (predominately white) owners. The fans, players, coaches, even the Clippers staff, despised him. An owner facing a player/fan revolt is unpalatable to his peers because revolts tend to spread (see Arab Spring). Faith is a powerful, motivating force, but so too is doubt.

That’s why the NBA is moving so swift to remove him. Let’s be serious – people are not going to stop going to Clippers games. Losing a few sponsors is pocket change in the grand scheme of things. You know what are not? Television contracts. Beyond their sheer size in dollars, TV contracts, more than anything else, represent the racial divide that separates white and black in the NBA (and the other North American professional sports). TV contracts are one thing (along with political connections for public stadium funding) the owners have that the players do not. We saw during the lockout Kevin Durant, James Harden, John Wall, and others filling arenas and lighting up the internet with dazzling displays of pickup ball. But it wasn’t on TV. They didn’t have commercial spots, high definition or a multinational, multi-billion dollar entertainment empire producing their games. They didn’t have television.

Why do you think the owners fought so hard during CBA negotiations two years ago? Do you really think they were losing money? Steve Ballmer just dropped $2bn on these very same Clips without batting an eyelash. Do you really think owners needed those extra percentage points of revenue? Or that the cap on individual salaries is really about competitive balance? The CBA was about diverting as much TV money (with a fat new contract coming in 2 years) to the owners as possible so that the players will never have the financial wherewithal to challenge ownership’s monopoly on basketball. Individual salaries are capped so that no one player (Kobe/LeBron) will get rich enough to vie for a spot at the table. Having the non-confrontational MJ is enough. If the players realized how much of their economic rents the owners are extracting for such little value we wouldn’t have had a lockout, we would have had labor Armageddon. The owners agreed to as long a lockout as was necessary to preserve the status quo. Sounds a lot like the early 1860s.

Then Donald Sterling happened. I don’t believe that Donald Sterling is much more racist than your or I. I do believe that he is a bumbling fool. After years of having “yes” men and women cater to his heeds, I believe he has lost the awareness of self and environment that allows us to navigate a racial world without stepping on anybody’s toes. He has done things his way for so long that he doesn’t know any other way. I found he CNN interview telling, especially when he said: “If I did anything wrong, I’m sorry.” After all this, he still doesn’t get what he did wrong. He has had his worldview confirmed so many times, perhaps even by others at the ownership table, that he didn't understand how it could upset someone. Well he did upset the delicate organizational relationship between owners and players. If that relationship goes haywire, the owners can wave goodbye to their next TV contract and their hierarchy of control.

So the NBA pinned its troubles on the fool. I was speaking to my brother-in-law about this and we wondered aloud if anything would have been different if Sterling said those horrible things not about blacks and Hispanics, but Asians. After all, Asians are a huge minority in professional sports at nearly all levels. Would comments about Asians, just as racist, have upset the NBA’s structure and forced this amount of outrage? I have no way to know, but I have my doubts. This reinforces the idea that maybe racism isn’t the issue. And if it was, getting rid of Sterling is only a fringe maneuver. No, the NBA’s problem is its history, its structure and its future. That’s why there will always be another Donald Sterling. The NBA knows this but they are desperate just to make this situation just go away so that maybe by the time they negotiate the next TV contract, people will have stopped caring.

The Rest of Us

Before we try to grapple with complex relationships between groups of people, [should] we look inward first?

As far as our society goes, we have to confront the reality that we have not come as far as we may have believed on issues of race. And before you paint me as an affirmative action type, I don’t believe that or other interventions are particularly useful. Donald Sterling was only part of this problem. How much does it say about our ease with the status quo that it is difficult to even have a discussion about racism? Wasn’t that what Donald did in the first place? Wrong, misguided, offending, bigoted. But I doubt that he is the least self-aware person in Beverley Hills.

What will it take for this to change? After all, Hispanic Americans are soon going to become the preeminent voting bloc in this country, either shortly before or after they gain majority representation in a majority of states. Will their culture, traditions, and viewpoints cascade upon the rest of our institutions? Or will seeking the American Dream always refer to seeking an existence of whiteness?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I’ve thrown some controversial statements out in this piece and I won’t stop now. Might I suggest that before we try to grapple with complex relationships between groups of people that we look inward first? America is a very young country. I have no doubt that over time, as the country changes, so eventually will our institutions. But I believe that by identifying the ways in which we judge others, mislabel them, disrespect them, maybe when new institutions are created, they can truly embody the inclusiveness that we can only hope for today.

I admit that I would have been, I don’t know, relieved, if Sterling had said something along the lines of: “I grew up in a racially tense world, I wasn’t sure of how to handle myself around people of color, I have fears and prejudices that govern how I act, and I’m sorry to the people I demeaned for dragging them through the mud." And Shelly Sterling, too: she remains married to him which I infer to be tacit recognition and acceptance of his beliefs. It’s absurd that she didn’t know. She’s linked to those comments just like he is no matter how she backtracked in the ensuing aftermath, and the NBA’s firm line against her ownership counts to me as equal treatment.

If the Sterlings had just owned what Donald said, made no equivocations, he still would have lost his team but would have in the process advanced the discussion far beyond the “we all hate Donald” state that it is in now. Hating Donald Sterling is not going to make the world a better place. But what if we looked inward and examined the racial prism we all see the world through? After all, not acknowledging an aspect about yours psyche isn’t going to change that thing or make it go away. It’s okay. You’re still the same person and I’ll still try my best to treat you with respect (I personally think it’s hard to respect others for who they are if you cannot afford that of yourself). Soul-searching doesn't sound like much of a remedy to a problem that has survived more, but I think it is a start to creating institutions that respect our differences as well as similarities.

Basketball is one such institution. I'm okay with being athletically limited and love when people underestimate me. And it’s okay if you see me on a basketball court and don’t want to throw me the ball. It’s my choice to play, love and compete with you in a sport that was created by a white guy and currently dominated by blacks. And you know what? Maybe I’ll show you a jumper that surprises. 

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