Let me just start out by saying this is not easy to write. Tackling a subject like race and sport, while a controversy is still hotter than Steph Curry in a given 3rd quarter, is kind of asking for it. So, if I write something that you disagree with, I understand. In fact, I expect it. It’s sort of the point behind this whole thing…the ideas of communication, contemplation, understanding, and healing. I could write about something else…like the upcoming NFL Draft, or the SEC sticking with an 8 game schedule, or what Dan Uggla has on Fredi Gonzalez that keeps him in the lineup even though he’s in his 3rd year of batting under the Mendoza line. I could write about a myriad of things that would be easier. But there are times when one shouldn’t, and can’t, take the easy road…especially, if they call you “The Strong Sauce” on radio. You have to get after it…boldly approach a subject...but do so with respect and thoughtfulness. This is my attempt at that very thing.
The aforementioned controversy is, of course, that of the recent publication of privately recorded conversations between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his self-described “bunny”, AKA mistress, one V. Stiviano. This whole affair, and it is that, is a real life saga comprised of a cast of some of the most contemptible characters who are driven by invidious motives that have led them to disarray, disruption, and possible destruction. A billionaire attorney who made most of his money as an urban housing slum Lord, an opportunistic mistress with fame, money, and adoration as her muse and motivation, a wife who has always turned her head to his improprieties, and an NBA franchise held hostage by events during the most important time of the season… the playoffs. Jack Abbott and company on The Young and the Restless have nothing on these folks (that was for my grandmother). In these released recordings, Mr. Sterling is heard saying a number of things derogatory and demeaning toward historical minorities in this country. Specifically, castigating his “bunny” for bringing African-American men to Clippers basketball games. Naturally, when this was exposed, the media firestorm raged, and folks started calling for the NBA to act. Shortly thereafter, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference banning Mr. Sterling for life from any activity in the NBA and announcing that his plan was to call for a vote of the other Twenty-Nine owners to force him to sell the franchise. It was a forceful and timely response that was appropriate, in my opinion. NBA players, other Clippers employees, and most everyday folk felt vindicated and relieved. The problem is it isn’t over. It isn’t even close to being over. To put it in basketball parlance, we’re just half way through the 1st quarter, and it could get ugly.
Because there are many facets and foibles to this story, let’s start with the most obvious. The issue of race is one that has, sadly, helped define our great experiment we call The United States of America. The story it tells reveals how truly awful mankind can be to one another, and how a civilization struggles to come out of that heinous and horrific period in our existence. We’ve made impressive strides historically, when compared to other societies that have dealt with such issues, but it will take a very long time to fully heal from those wounds and memories. Sometimes, scars are not just physical. And this gets to my point. This is a free country. It should be free for everyone. It should be free for everyone…even those who hate others based on their skin color. In this country, you are free to say vile and ridiculous things. In this country, you are free to spew ridiculous notions and hurtful language. You and I are free to do that. However, if you choose to interject into the public conversation those stupid ideas, I am also free to publicly mock and deride you. I am free to poke holes through your argument and reveal the banality of your flaccid mind. I am free to make fun of you and to laugh at you. This is what has happened to Mr. Sterling. He is a social pariah. Societal mechanisms worked, and the public has spoken. We disapprove. In that sense, that part of this soap opera is done. Unfortunately, there is more to the story, and it has huge implications for the NBA, and sports, in general.
The Daily Mail, a British newspaper that I read occasionally, recently did a fascinating expose on the “bunny”, V. Stiviano. V, as she calls herself now, grew up in San Antonio as Maria Perez. Her story is both fascinating and absurd. According to The Daily Mail, the “bunny” was involved with the late Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Upon his death, Dr. Buss left her with a condo, cars, and loads of cash. The “bunny” then went over to the Clippers organization and served Mr. Sterling in the same capacity…that of a charity organizer and personal liaison (Bill Simmons has a funny piece in Grantland about a flight with them). According reports, the “bunny” also received gobs of cash and luxury cars from Mr. Sterling for her services. Sometime last year, Mrs. Sterling, the wife who knew too little, sued the “bunny” for misuse of family funds, and then, magically, these recordings surfaced. You see where this is going? It seems like this is just the first shot in a brutal and public family dispute… one where courts are already involved.
So, why is this a sports column, you may ask? Why is it necessary to get into all of this? Simply, because the ramifications are incalculable. It is unprecedented that a major sport in the U.S. has banned an owner of a team. Owners are almost sacrosanct. Once you are in the club, you’re in. If Jerry Jones, Al Davis, and Dan Snyder can’t be removed from ownership, who can? History was made by Adam Silver. Here, though, we have a situation where U.S. law governing property makes the situation extremely and acutely relevant to a sports column. A person, in a free country, cannot lose personal property for comments made in private, regardless of how insulting they might be. Chances are Mr. Sterling, who made his money in a court room, probably has no fear of taking this to court. A guy like that may actually be looking forward to going to court and exposing other people who he feels has turned their back on him. Other owners are watching this closely and quietly, to be sure. I would dare say that, were Mr. Sterling to decide to really fight this litigiously, it could change how leagues, owners, players, and other employees interact forever. That’s a huge sports story…but it’s also structural and sterile. Which leads me to why I wrote this…
Sport is a personal thing. If you’ve ever played on a team, you know what I’m talking about. When we win, we found out who we are…when we lose, we find out who we really are. If you’ve ever been on a team, you know that it doesn’t matter what skin color the person next you has…the only thing that matters is winning. You never want to let that person down by giving less than 100 percent. You sweat, you bleed, you win, and you lose with that person and those people. You ride buses, you listen to music, you laugh, you yell, you high five, you say good game, you talk strategy…you live life with them. It is you against everyone else. You can give a look, and they know what you are thinking. You are in it together. There’s a reason a movie as predictable as “Remember the Titans” is loved…because it speaks to a truth that all athletes and sports fans understand: That we are in this together. Playing on a team and winning is what makes it fun, but playing on a team and finding brothers and sisters…of all colors…is what makes us love it. Donald Sterling and his band of merry ne’er-do-wells can never take that away.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.