Sports’ race problems go beyond Sterling

May 1, 2014

For more than three decades, Donald Sterling has been widely considered the worst owner in the National Basketball Association. He was a frequent embarrassment to the rest of the league, but there was little or nothing the other owners, his unfortunate players and coaches, or the commissioner’s office could do about the man who owns the Los Angeles Clippers.

That changed last week with the leaking of an audio recording in which Sterling, 80, was heard making racist comments to a woman described as his girlfriend. Of course, the attorney for the girlfriend, V. Stiviano, says the woman and Sterling did not have a “romantic relationship,” and that Stiviano was actually Sterling’s “archivist,” whatever that means. Holding that sort of high-level job would explain, of course, why Sterling reportedly gave Stiviano a 2012 Ferrari, two Bentleys, a Range Rover, nearly a quarter-million dollars in cash and a Spanish-style duplex with a price tag approaching $2 million. Good archivists, we hear, are ridiculously hard to find. However, Sterling’s wife of more than half a century apparently thinks this “compensation” is a bit much. She’s suing to get it all back.

But we digress. Sterling, on the audio recording, can be heard telling the 31-year-old Stiviano that he didn’t want her posting photographs of herself and black men online, and that he didn’t want her bringing black people with her to “his” games. Said Sterling, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” As for the suggestion that he might be, to quote a line from the Broadway show “Avenue Q,” a little bit racist, Sterling said of his predominantly black team, “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?” Elgin Baylor, who toiled for 22 years as general manager of the Clippers, once said that Sterling had a “plantation mentality.” No wonder.

With player unrest and public pressure mounting, NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday brought the hammer down on Sterling, banning him from the league for life, fining him $2.5 million and ordering that the franchise be sold. Sterling has said little, but there’s reason to believe that he won’t go gentle into that good night, and that a long, bitter legal battle might ensue.

Certainly, Sterling’s comments and attitudes are despicable and indefensible, but the furor over the backward racial opinions of one old white man has overshadowed a larger issue: the continuing racial inequality at the top of major college and professional sports.

The NBA, to its credit, has a good record with black coaches, who hold nearly half of the head coaching jobs. The numbers aren’t nearly as good, however, in college basketball. In the NFL, about two-thirds of the players are black, but there are still relatively few black head coaches. Black coaching candidates often struggle to get their first head jobs, even with the so-called Rooney Rule that requires every team with an opening to at least interview a minority applicant. And they’re much less likely than their white counterparts to get a second chance if the first one doesn’t go well. It’s much the same in college football. There are a few high-profile black coaches, but they are the exception. The Big Ten recently went through a decade-long period in which it didn’t have a single black head football coach. In Major League Baseball, there are 30 franchises and three black managers.

The numbers are even more discouraging when one looks at upper-management positions – athletic directors, general managers, team presidents, etc. And black owners of major sports franchises are scarce as hen’s teeth.

The NBA did what it had to do with Donald Sterling. But in the grand scheme of race and sports, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.



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