On Tuesday afternoon, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that he was banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million dollars for the racist comments made in a recent conversation with his former mistress. Silver also announced he is encouraging the NBA's Board of Governors to vote to force Sterling to sell the franchise.
Dave Van Ronk, the late folk singer who made a lot less money than Bob Dylan, once asked Dylan, "If you're so rich, how come you're not smart?"
[sidebar title="Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's View Of History" width="330" align="right"]In 2011, we spoke to NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his movie "On the Shoulders of Giants," which tells the story of the Harlem Rens, an African-American squad who he calls “the greatest basketball team you’ve never heard of.”[/sidebar]I don't know what Bob Dylan had been saying to provoke Mr. Van Ronk, but it would be a good question for somebody to ask Donald Sterling, though it would be rhetorical. We do know what he's been saying. Even lots of people who didn't know before the weekend that Donald Sterling owned an NBA basketball team know what he has said. Mr. Sterling's ignorant and offensive babbling has reminded us — in case we needed reminding — that having a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean anything other than that you have a lot of money.
The public embarrassment of Donald Sterling — assuming that he is embarrassed — has provoked lots of people to decry his bigotry. This is fine, since his bigotry deserves decrying, but as no less a towering figure than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written, Donald Sterling is "just a handmaiden to the bigger evil."
Donald Sterling has become the ultimate slow-moving target. He is the sports world's equivalent of Cliven Bundy, the rancher/sociologist who opined recently that perhaps black folks were better off during slavery. Donald Sterling is, likewise, a clown so preposterously extreme that Virgin America, State Farm, and Red Bull, among others, stepped away from him even before Commissioner Silver brought down the hammer.
Lots of people who share some of Donald Sterling's views are not as easy to ridicule as Sterling has become. They don't say the hateful, harmful, and ignorant things Donald Sterling has said about minorities when there is any danger they'll be recorded. Maybe they don't say those things at all. If they oppose changes in society at large that might help to level a playing field that has been historically uneven — to invoke a sports metaphor -– they provide several allegedly sound economic, social, and philosophical reasons for their positions without once mentioning slavery or saying that minorities don't want to work. They are less pathetic in general than is Donald Sterling, and more careful about choosing their associates.
Though some observers have found Silver's sanctions on Donald Sterling surprising, the decision to ban him from the NBA for life was popular with Silver's constituency. In that sense, it wasn't difficult. More challenging will be the task Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has set for all of us. "Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep," he wrote, "we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs."