- Dave Zirin
sports columnist for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. Zirin is the author of several books on sports, including Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, which includes an essay on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
The National Basketball Association is set to announce its response to the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling heard on a secret recording of an argument with his girlfriend. On the tape, Sterling is upset she posted a picture on Instagram with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, telling her not to publicize her association with African Americans. Sterling’s comments have set off one of the NBA’s biggest controversies in decades. NBA stars, past and present, have called for his removal, and more than a dozen advertisers have canceled or suspended their sponsorships with the Clippers. While Sterling’s comments shocked the sports world, they came as no surprise to those who have followed his record. In 2009, he paid more than $2.7 million to settle federal allegations of driving out people of color from apartment buildings he owns. A former Clippers general manager also sued Sterling for racial bias, but lost in court. All this has raised the question of why it has taken a secret tape to draw attention to practices that have been out in the open for years. “The warning signs of Donald Sterling’s racism, egregious behavior and misogyny go back more than a decade — and the league has coddled him,” says Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation and host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. Zirin is the author of several books on sports, including “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love,” which includes an essay on Sterling. Zirin also discusses the flawed handling of a rape case involving star Florida State University football player Jameis Winston and the historic vote by Northwestern University football players on whether to unionize.
AARON MATÉ: The National Basketball Association is set to announce its response today to the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. A tape that emerged on Friday has Sterling lambasting a woman identified as his girlfriend. On the recording, Sterling is upset she posted a picture on Instagram with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Sterling tells her not to publicize her association with African Americans.
DONALD STERLING: Why should you be walking publicly with black people? Why? Is there a benefit to you?
V. STIVIANO: Is it a benefit to me? Does it matter if they’re white or blue or yellow?
DONALD STERLING: I guess that you don’t know that. Maybe you’re stupid. Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. It does matter, yeah! It matters. How about the—how about your whole life, every day, you could do whatever you want? You could sleep with them. You could bring them in. You could do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that, and not to bring them to my games.
AARON MATÉ: Sterling’s comments have set off one of the NBA’s biggest controversies in decades. NBA stars, past and present, have called for his removal, including Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson, the NBA legend whose picture drew Sterling’s ire, spoke out to ESPN.
MAGIC JOHNSON: You can’t understand how hurt I was. And also, I was hurt for all African Americans and all minorities. Once Commissioner Silver—I was going to say Stern—Silver, you know, does all his due diligence, get all the information, gather the information, we’ve got to—he’s got to come down hard. He shouldn’t own a team anymore. And he should stand up and say, “I don’t want to own a team anymore.”
AARON MATÉ: On Monday, over a dozen companies announced they were canceling or suspending their sponsorships with the Clippers. These include Virgin America, Kia, State Farm, Red Bull, Sprint, Burger King and Samsung.
The Clippers’ next game is tonight at home in Los Angeles. On Sunday, the team staged a silent protest by wearing their bench jerseys inside out, stacking their warm-up jackets at center court, and wearing black socks. The Miami Heat followed suit Monday night with a similar move. The Clippers’ players are reportedly considering taking further action tonight, but their response could be shaped by the NBA’s pending announcement. League Commissioner Adam Silver has called a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to announce the league’s response. That could range anywhere from a large fine to a suspension, to forcing Sterling to sell the team.
AMY GOODMAN: While Sterling’s comments have shocked the sports world, they come as no surprise to those who have followed his record. In 2009, he paid more than $2.7 million to settle federal allegations of driving out people of color from apartment buildings that he owns. He was reported to have said, quote, “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” A former Clippers general manager also sued Sterling for racial bias, but lost in court. All this has raised the question of why it’s taken a secret tape to draw attention to practices that have been out in the open for years.
One of those voices who has been criticizing Donald Sterling for quite a while now is our next guest, Dave Zirin, a sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. He’s the author of several books, including Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. The book includes an essay on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Zirin has posted it at TheNation.com under the title “Slumlord Billionaire.”
Dave Zirin, talk about the latest.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the latest is the tipping point. And the latest is the sort of comments that should only surprise people in the NBA if they’ve been living in Dick Cheney’s bunker for the last 10 years. The warning signs of Donald Sterling’s racism and egregious behavior and his misogyny go back more than a decade. And they have coddled him for decades. You know, Amy, there’s an expression when we talk about rape culture, for example, that the definition of it is not just the crime, but it’s people who see what’s happening but choose to do nothing. There is a racism culture in the ownership ranks of the NBA. In other words, not every owner is as outward a racist as Donald Sterling, but for decades they have chosen to enable him and look the other way.
AARON MATÉ: Dave, on the recording, Sterling suggests the NBA’s owners are more central to the league than its players. He also uses paternalistic language to describe the players on his team.
DONALD STERLING: If you feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.
V. STIVIANO: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black that plays for you?
DONALD STERLING: You just—do I know? 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? Do I know that I have? Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? These are 30 owners that created the league.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Donald Sterling. Dave Zirin, as I understand it, fans aren’t coming to the games to watch Donald Sterling sit in the stands, but he seems to have a really jaded view of what his role is. What does it say about the NBA that this guy has been allowed to own this team for so long?
DAVE ZIRIN: Aaron, that would be an outrageous statement for any owner, but that is a particularly outrageous statement for Donald Sterling. Donald Sterling is someone who bought the Clippers for $13 million—$3 million down, $10 million on layaway. And he has seen that investment, despite having losing seasons for, I believe, 28 of his 30 seasons as an NBA owner—despite that, he has seen his investment rise from that initial $3 million to a team that he could sell for $800 million to a billion dollars. And that is not because of Donald Sterling’s genius or greatness. That’s been because the league as a whole benefited from the sweat, blood and tears of people like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the aforementioned Magic Johnson. The idea that this is Donald Sterling’s brilliance is ridiculous. And I’ll even take it a step further. We’re living in an era where the public pays for stadiums. We show up to watch players. Owners are superfluous in the 21st century sports environment. And if Donald Sterling doesn’t realize that, I think he’s getting a crash course in that this week.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the piece he wrote for Time, “Welcome to the Finger-Wagging Olympics”? I just want to read the beginning. “Moral outrage is exhausting,” he says. “And dangerous. The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking. All over the latest in a long line of rich white celebrities to come out of the racist closet. (Was it only a couple days ago [that] Cliven Bundy said blacks would be better off picking cotton as slaves? And only last June Paula Deen admitted using the 'N' word?)”
He goes on to say, “Yes, I’m angry, too, but not just about the sins of Donald Sterling. I’ve got a list. But let’s start with Sterling. I used to work for him, back in 2000 when I coached for the Clippers for three months. He was congenial, even inviting me to his daughter’s wedding. Nothing happened or was said to indicate he suffered from IPMS (Irritable Plantation Master Syndrome). Since then, a lot has been revealed about Sterling’s business practices.”
And he goes on to talk about, you know, the Department of Justice suing him and etc. Also the Clippers’ executive and one of the greatest NBA players in history sued for employment discrimination based on age and race. So, if he’s forced by Adam Silver, the head of the NBA today, to sell the team, he makes a fortune. What about what you think should happen, Dave? And what about the position of the players and what they’re doing to protest?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I think Kareem makes a very good point in that we’re so quick to attack people who say racist things, yet we don’t look at the manifestations of institutionalized racism. I think that’s the great contribution of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is that it looks at the prison system, as she puts it, in the “post-racial” society, the way racism manifests itself. And so, we can wag our fingers at Donald Sterling and not look at the institutionalized racism that still exists.
Look, there’s what—Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, there is what he will do, what he could do, and what he should do. What he will do is, I think, suspend Donald Sterling indefinitely, pending further investigation into their ability to wrest control of the team from him. What he could do is immediately say, “We are compelling Donald Sterling to sell this team, and we are going to conduct an investigation into why this man has been coddled for so many decades.” And by the way, that’s a demand of the players’ union, that there be an investigation into why he’s been coddled for so many years. What he should do is turn the Los Angeles Clippers into a public utility for the city of Los Angeles, or into a fan-owned team like the Green Bay Packers, frankly, as a form of reparations for all the harm that Donald Sterling has done not only to the fans of the Clippers team, but also to the literally thousands of people who have had to live in his housing projects in Los Angeles who have been harmed by his financial existence.
AARON MATÉ: Dave, do you agree with the criticisms that the players should have done more? And what can they do if the NBA’s response is insufficient?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s interesting. I actually—there have been so much talk on Twitter and on social media about, “Oh, the players should have done more,” “The players should have done something more drastic,” “They should have boycotted,” “What would John Carlos, the 1968 Olympian, what would he have done if he was in this situation?” And all these people were saying this, so I figured, well, I’m going to pick up the phone and call John Carlos and find out. So I called Dr. Carlos, and first I asked him, “Has anyone in the big media called you to ask what you think? Because they’re all referencing you.” And he said, “Nope, I’m just sitting here. No one’s asked.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to ask you, Dr. Carlos. What would—what do you think about what they did?”
And John Carlos, he thought that their symbolic statement of taking off their warm-ups, putting them at center court, was a powerful one, because you had to get 12 people acting in collective fashion. And he said, “Look, you’re going to have a lot of people of different political beliefs, ideas, some maybe more radical than others. If you can get all 12 to act in concert, then that’s a good thing.” He also said that the next step should be players walking into Donald Sterling’s office and demanding to be traded at the end of the season. And he said fans should not show up to the game. And he said that Donald Sterling should have this team taken away from him.
AMY GOODMAN: And other teams, players on other teams, like Miami Heat, in solidarity?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, that was a powerful statement. They took off their uniforms, as well, the warm-up jackets, and did their layups not showing the NBA symbol, not showing the seal. And I think it’s a powerful moment of solidarity, because, look, I mean, we’re living in a time where political statements by athletes on the court are pretty rare. I mean, the last time it happened in the NBA was when that same Miami Heat team posed with their hoods on when Trayvon Martin was killed and George Zimmerman was still not arrested. And so, these kinds of statements are important because what they do is they push the discussion forward. And that’s all you really have to ask of athletes. The only thing you don’t want them to do when faced with something like this is to do nothing. And when you look at some of the amazing comments on social media by athletes, like David West of the Pacers, who spoke about, you know, this shows that we don’t live in any kind of post-racial America, I mean, that’s an important discussion for us to have, and I think it shows the way that athletes can leverage their hyper-exalted, brought-to-you-by-Nike platform, to leverage it.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month—switching gears slightly—critical flaws emerged in the handling of a rape case involving the star Florida State University football player Jameis Winston. In December, the local prosecutor said he lacked evidence to charge Winston. About a week later, Winston won the Heisman Trophy. Now The New York Times reports, quote, “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or university.” Police closed the case without interviewing Winston, obtaining his DNA or following obvious leads to identify witnesses, including one who videotaped the alleged assault. The university also failed to take action, allowing Winston to keep playing football. The mishandling appears to extend to other cases at FSU. And the report comes as students across the country demand their schools take action to hold students who commit sexual assault accountable. Dave Zirin, talk about this case.
DAVE ZIRIN: No, absolutely. I mean, first of all, as Jessica Luther has written, as we talk about this, we have to realize that rape on college campuses is not just a football problem, but it’s something that affects an estimated 20 percent of college women, and it’s a broader problem in terms of how universities handle these kinds of cases.
But in this particular case in Florida State, I mean, one of the things that it shows is that when you have a small college town like Tallahassee, you see the way the football program is an instrument not only of social cohesion, but also economic cohesion. Every Florida State game brings a million dollars into the community. The police officer who was investigating this woman’s claim that Jameis Winston sexually assaulted her, I mean, he’s a member of the security team for the Florida State nonprofit boosters club, which donates literally hundreds of millions of dollars into the Florida State athletic department. So, it’s like one of those old company towns, like in Matewan, except the industry isn’t coal, the industry is football. And that means that people get protected.
And what’s so awful about it is that because college sports, particularly the revenue-producing sports football and basketball—because they’re so exploitative and because they’re so dependent on African-American labor, one of the things that you see is these players are treated as both a combination of chattel and heroes, with women often used as a form of currency to lure players into different campuses with the promise that they will be able to live without sanctions. So they’re not paid an honest wage. They’re not treated like actually grown people who are bringing money and funds into the university. I mean, they’re treated in a way that I think you can only describe as abusive, which I think is the starting point for a lot of these sexual assault cases.
AARON MATÉ: And, Dave, very quickly, because we just have 30 seconds, but you were in Illinois last week covering this vote by Northwestern University football players on whether to form a union. Can you explain what happened in winning this right to vote and what happens next?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, we’re not going to see results from this for months, but this is—it directly connects to the discussion about Florida State, because this is about football players actually asserting their humanity and demanding to be treated like human beings, to have a seat at the table and to be able to say, “We want a say in our healthcare. We want a say in our travel schedule. We want a say in what we bring to this campus, and not to be treated like, frankly, extensions of pieces of equipment.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Zirin, I want to thank you for being with us, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. Zirin is the author of many books, including Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, with an essay in it on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. His forthcoming book about Brazil and the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics is called Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.
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