clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2014 NBA Playoffs: Golden State Warriors players respond harshly to controversy surrounding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling on eve of Game 4

Warriors players joined a chorus of voices from around the NBA to denounce Donald Sterling, who is engulfed in controversy (again) over racist remarks released by TMZ. In discussing issues related to the controversy, players illustrate the difficulty of taking action against Sterling.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has agreed not to attend Game 4 of his team's playoff series against the Golden State Warriors tomorrow amid controversy about racist remarks released by TMZ last night.

While the league conducts an investigation to authenticate the audio and make the necessary interviews, Warriors players have already voiced their opinions about the owner of their playoff opponents during their meetings with media today at the University of San Francisco (where the jersey of outspoken NBA legend Bill Russell is honored).

Stephen Curry's remarks were probably the most forceful in demanding action, but both Andre Iguodala and Jermaine O'Neal had thoughtful points as well in response to other issues that have come up in response to the controversy.

Among the most immediate topics of discussion to come up was that both activist Jesse Jackson and broadcast journalist Keith Olbermann called for a player boycott of games until the NBA takes action, which the Clippers reportedly considered briefly - a boycott would have financial implications for both the NBA and Sterling's pockets in addition to making a symbolic statement. However, it's hard not to agree with the point that Andre Iguodala (and others) made in response to that idea as reported by Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: the burden shouldn't be on black players to clean up the mess created by an owner's racist remarks.

"That would hurt the game," Iguodala said. "We’ve got to be bigger than the ignorance. Just by playing, it shows all of the hard work that those guys put in and the sacrifices they’ve made to fulfill their dreams. You can’t let someone like that deter you from where you want to be or what you want your legacy to stand for. I think by playing and giving it your all, it shows how mentally strong you are."

Furthermore, there's an issue of what the aims of a boycott would be. Symbolically, players would clearly be taking a stand of zero tolerance for Sterling and what he represents with plenty of support from the mainstream. But if the goal of a boycott would be to pressure Sterling into selling the team - as Magic Johnson, the subject of Sterling's comments, has called for - he would essentially profit from being outed as an overt racist because there's no (immediately obvious) criminal offense in this that would legally deny him from doing so.

Maybe the profits from a sale would be a drop in the bucket for someone that rich, but it would nonetheless be an awkwardly profitable "punishment" for an undesirable figure. And that doesn't change the fact that it must obviously be equally awkward, frustrating, and almost painful to play for a team with someone like Sterling profiting from your performance.

O'Neal addressed his feelings on playing for a team with an owner as abhorrent as Sterling as part of his lengthy interview with Tim Kawakami, echoing reservations that LeBron James and other players have aired.

-Q: Could you play for that guy?

-O’NEAL: It’s difficult. It’s very difficult for I think any player in any sport to want to play for a guy that doesn’t believe in their race or looks down upon their race, for whatever reason.

I don’t know who would want to do that. I don’t know who would want to openly go and play for a person like that. It’s just strange that he would say those things and feel that way when you have a team that is predominantly African-American, a coach who’s African-American, a staff that’s African-American, basically.

It’s just strange.

But "strange" hardly begins to describe the depth of this situation.

To the contrary, Curtis Harris of Hardwood Paroxysm has made the argument that the perceived tension between Sterling's words and actions isn't strange at all and can be understood in the context of the nation's history of racism, succinctly, as follows: "What Sterling desires is the comfortable wealth derived from the black body without any public intimacy with that body."

However, what is odd, as described well by J.A. Adande, is that we're in an uproar over the response to an instagram by a man who has committed far worse racist, sexist, and just plain malicious acts in his lifetime.  What's strange is that the league took no action when the Department of Justice found that Sterling "Engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminating on the basis of race, national origin, and family status", despite media attention from The Nation's Dave Zirin and activists like Tenants Together alike.

What is absolutely bizarre is that the NAACP was set to honor this man again despite that DoJ settlement. Meanwhile, as Zirin has astutely pointed out, although there has been swift and nearly universal condemnation of Sterling for this, there has been open public debate about whether Dan Snyder is wrong for defending the name of the Washington professional football team.

People are not wrong for being outraged at Sterling for this - the racist dynamic at work that leads a man owning a team of predominately black players to make those comments is worthy of our derision. But we live in a troubled world when a recorded discussion about an Instagram post would somehow be the thing that finally compels action against a man with a history that makes him a racist by any reasonable structurally-informed definition of the term; with or without authentication of TMZ's audio, Sterling's statement that his alleged comments are "the antithesis of who he is" reflects a shallow understanding of why someone might call him a "racist" at best and is a blatant lie at worst.

The problem really is that the NBA is limited in what they can do to Sterling, which hardly excuses the casual way in which they let him slide for the DoJ settlement.

As Michael McCann has described in depth for SI, there are a number of legal hurdles the league would need to clear to push Sterling out and, as he tweeted, it's not like he'd just slither off into the night at the first sign of trouble - he would probably use every legal means at his disposal to fight whatever the league does. And the latest is that Sterling's girlfriend, V. Stiviano, is refusing to talk to the NBA as part of their investigation, which could further delay the process.

Nevertheless, Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal has said that the league can suspend him indefinitely and there probably wouldn't be much outrage if they did, whether they punish him for tarnishing the league's brand or retroactively correct the way they let him slide previously. Beyond that, there doesn't immediately appear to be a scenario where the league can dispose of Sterling without him profiting from the departure, which is but a small chapter of the disturbing narrative of this nation's struggle to abolish the racist ideology that he represents from the fabric of daily life.

Yet ultimately, Sterling doesn't stand to lose much here: if he loses the team, he'll almost certainly see a multi-million dollar windfall; if an authentication process determines that it is indeed his voice on that audio, it's not like it will damage his already ugly reputation.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Golden State of Mind Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Golden State Warriors news from Golden State of Mind