published Monday, April 28th, 2014

Wiedmer: Sterling might be a racist if ...

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sits courtside at the NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles on Sunday. On Saturday, April 26, 2014, the NBA said it is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to his girlfriend.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sits courtside at the NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles on Sunday. On Saturday, April 26, 2014, the NBA said it is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to his girlfriend.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It wasn't hard to spot overt racism in our town this past weekend. All you had to do was stroll past the Hamilton County Courthouse during the National Socialist Movement's dimwitted demonstration on Saturday.

Yet the fact that such prejudiced passion was met with verbal ridicule rather than physical retaliation surely signals how far we've come to permanently banish bigotry in this country.

Now if we could just do something about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Given that the National Basketball Association's player pool is roughly 80 percent black and its coaching pool was 43 percent African-American a season ago, you might think the NBA would be the last place in professional sports you'd find a racist team owner.

Should TMZ's recording of a man reported to be Sterling prove accurate, however, the 80-year-old owner (his birthday was Saturday) could be a former owner by the end of this week. And to think that until this tape was released on Friday, Sterling was about to receive a lifetime achievement award for the second time from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP.

The portion of the tape that's garnered the most play centers on him telling a woman who's been portrayed as a girlfriend: "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people," after the woman posed for a picture with NBA legend Magic Johnson at a Clippers game.

Further along in the conversation, after the woman -- who's reportedly both black and Hispanic -- questions his views, the man said, "Well then ... don't come to my games. Don't bring black people, and don't come."

To that end, boycotts by African-Americans and Hispanics are already being planned for the Clippers' Tuesday night playoff game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center.

But it was something else he said that seems equally volatile and more disturbing. Displaying a viewpoint that could easily have been an updated opinion of a benevolent Southern plantation owner in 1814, the man said, "I support them (Clippers players) and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. ... Does someone else give it to them? Do I make the game or do they make the game?"

Not that this has much to do with the overall stupidity and bigotry on display throughout the entire tape, but players have always made the NBA. From Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell to Jerry West to Julius Erving to Magic, Larry Legend, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it's always been about the players and their outrageous skills.

Rare is the coach -- Celtics legend Red Auerbach, former Bulls and LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson, possibly Pat Riley -- who challenges that notion. Rarer still is the owner -- deceased Lakers boss Jerry Buss, arguably Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- that is somewhat as well-known as his players.

Further investigate Sterling's past and he might at least become infamous on a scale rarely seen in the NBA.

It's not just that a weekend ESPN article recalled him once paying a then-record $2.75 million to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit that included accusations that Sterling believed African-Americans and Hispanics weren't desirable tenants and that he preferred Korean tenants.

That same story recounted that during an unsuccessful wrongful termination suit, longtime Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor accused Sterling of telling him, "I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players."

And you wonder why the Clippers -- who led Golden State 2-1 heading into Sunday's Game 4 of the best-of-seven series -- listlessly lost to the Warriors on Sunday while staging a protest of sorts by discarding their outer warm-up jackets at midcourt before the game, then turning their inner warmup shirts inside out to hide the Clippers logo.

What ultimately becomes of this no one knows. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver has promised swift action after making sure the voice on the tape was indeed Sterling. Everyone from President Barack Obama -- "When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance you don't really have to do anything, you just let them talk" -- to Magic to MJ have criticized the owner.

Of course, you can also say that Sterling's long history of hiring African-Americans -- Baylor was the GM for a stunning 22 years, four blacks have been Clippers head coaches, including current coach Doc Rivers -- is why the NAACP was about to honor him for a second time.

It could also be argued that this was originally a very private conversation between two people reportedly involved in a very personal -- if somewhat creepy -- relationship. Tempers flare, words spew forth that can't be taken back, revenge trumps reason.

It shouldn't be ignored that Baylor lost his wrongful termination suit. When the dust settles, Sterling may still be the Clippers owner.

But no black athlete in history -- not even Jordan -- has more successfully navigated race beyond his playing days than Magic. In one of the more elegant yet simple statements on the subject, he said Sunday, "We all play with different races of people -- that's what makes sports so beautiful."

So when Magic also said he and his wife would never attend another Clippers game as long as Sterling owned the club, adding, "Once commissioner Silver does all his due diligence, gathers his information, he's got to come down hard. [Sterling] shouldn't own a team anymore," it should carry extra weight.

Yet whatever ultimately happens to Sterling, this much, quite sadly, apparently still rings true: Not every bigot and racist shaves his head and carries a swastika flag.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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