When I first saw the headlines about Donald Sterling and racism Friday night, I assumed it was old news, another compilation of the Clipper owner's well-documented history of racist comments, attitudes and practices. Some news outlet was probably once again pointing out that the U.S. Justice Department presented evidence in a 2009 housing discrimination suit against Sterling, a real estate mogul, alleging he had made statements "indicating that African-Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants." Or maybe the outlet was re-publishing a deposition from that lawsuit, which Sterling settled for $2.7 million, when one of his employees testified that Sterling said that blacks "smell, they're not clean," and that Mexicans "just sit around and smoke and drink all day."
But no, this was new stuff. The same vile attitudes in fresh, previously unused wrapping. I shouldn't have been surprised at the new reminder of Sterling's racism, provided in a recording of a conversation in which he tells his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he doesn't want her to publicly associate with African-Americans. "You can sleep with [black people]," he tells her. "You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that (Instagram) and not to bring them to my games."
It was more than nine minutes of hypocritical, illogical, racist talk. The words were shocking (and, it must be said, equally pathetic), but the fact that he said them is not. People who think like Sterling don't just go away, they keep reminding you anew of the ugliness in their hearts. Maybe you can forget about them for a while, but they keep festering, like a sore, unless they are dealt with properly.
That's what NBA officials never understood. They knew what kind of man Sterling was better than anyone. They heard not just the public stories of his racism -- including former Clipper GM Elgin Baylor's allegations in a wrongful termination suit that Sterling brought women into the shower area of the locker room and told them to "look at those beautiful black bodies," as though the players were racehorses -- but they heard the private ones, the ones that didn't make it into depositions or news reports, as well.
And the league did nothing. No fines, no suspensions, not even a slap on the wrist came Sterling's way. The NBA harbored a racist owner for years and hoped that no one would notice or care, and now it has blown up in the league's face. Now the NBA has to do what it should have been doing years ago -- have its lawyers comb the bylaws and legal precedents to determine just how severe a punishment can be levied against Sterling. At least, that's what the league should be doing right now. A record-setting fine should be a given, a suspension a must. Finding a way to force him to sell the franchise seems like a legal longshot, but no possibility should be left unexamined.
There was a rush to question the players, especially the African-American players on the Clippers, about their reaction to Sterling's comments. Were they angry? Would they boycott Sunday's playoff game against the Warriors? How could they work for a boss who had insulted their race? But those answers are obvious. Of course they're angry, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers acknowledged on Saturday. "We're not happy about any of it," Rivers said. "It upsets me and it upsets this team." It would make little sense to boycott, because they would be hurting themselves as much, if not more, than Sterling by sabotaging everything they have worked for the last six months, not to mention the individual fines they could be subject to for not fulfilling the terms of their contracts. Also, boycotts are formed to bring attention to a problem, or to send the message that the problem will no longer be tolerated, neither of which should be necessary here. The Sterling issue finally has everyone's attention, and if the players have to inform the league that they're outraged, league officials are even more tone-deaf we thought.
But beyond all that, it's not fair to place the burden of addressing the Sterling problem on the players, black or white, and it's particularly misguided to expect African-American players to take some drastic action like a boycott. It is not the responsibility of African-Americans to "fix" racism, certainly not the institutional racism that allowed Sterling to thrive. Instead of wondering how Rivers or his players could work for Sterling, think about how the other NBA owners could continue to do business with him all these years. Ask former commissioner David Stern, who accepted so much flowery praise upon his recent retirement, why he was more concerned with matters like fining Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for criticizing the refs than he was with finding a way to give Sterling the smackdown he deserved.
Now it is up to new commissioner Adam Silver to do what should have been done so long ago -- send the clear message to Sterling that his brand of racial animus has no place in the league. It was a cynical game the NBA was playing, hoping that Sterling's ugliness would remain on the periphery, nothing more than fodder for the occasional news story that would quickly fade away. It was like a company that chooses not to recall a dangerous product, thinking it's more cost-effective to deal with the periodic accidents than to take the product off the assembly line altogether. The NBA gambled and finally lost. Sterling has caused a big, messy pileup, and the debris won't easily be cleaned up.
The hope is that Sterling will get the punishment he deserves. The NBA already has.