After Donald Sterling, NBA should give deeper thought to professionalism in locker room


In the wake of the Donald Sterling affair, the NBA should take a long, hard look at locker room culture — especially as it pertains to music and the potential offensive messages its lyrics send. (Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images)
Mike Wise
Columnist May 10

We have spent the better part of two weeks discussing the Racist In Our Midst. Donald Sterling’s pathetic pillow talk had to be unearthed — perhaps illegally — for that to happen, but once it was, the Los Angeles Clippers owner was thrown out of his own building and banned from the league for life.

With a work force that is 76 percent African Americans, this was the necessary thing for the NBA to do. Under any circumstances, this was the right thing to do.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

But that sense of right and wrong is not a selective ideal, applicable in some situations and not others. Anyone expecting civility and decency and respect in the workplace damn sure better extend it to others.

Let me explain: Following Wednesday’s Pacers-Wizards game in Indianapolis, during the time when NBA rules permit media members to be present, the music blaring in the Indiana locker room was filled with vile language: racist, homophobic and misogynist. Afterward, I complained on Twitter that if Commissioner Adam Silver truly wants an inclusive league, he ought to address this (common) practice.

The backlash was swift and immediate. Because the offensive music was rap, I was branded Mr. Middle-Age White Guy Who Hates Black Athletes’ Music on social media and in online columns. Because I had the temerity to ask whether this was appropriate in a workplace, the discourse became about me, my complexion and my sensibilities. (To be fair, I contributed to this line of discussion by responding to personal attacks with personal defenses.)

All of which missed the point.

There was only one debate that should have taken place, and it was about what constitutes a public workspace. That the offending scenario played out under the banner of the same league that refused to tolerate a bigot such as Sterling in its midst only added to the poignancy. Or the irony. Or both.

To clarify, professional sports teams have media availability periods during which reporters are allowed into locker rooms to interview players. Sometimes these are formal scrums with cameras and notebooks everywhere. Other times they are one-on-one conversations with pens down and recorders turned off. You shoot the breeze with a guy you want to get to know.

Some believe reporters are interloping visitors who must respect any locker room culture, however coarse, vulgar and un-mainstream it may seem. Others argue that, while a locker room may be a sanctuary at any other time, during the designated interview periods, the same rules apply as would in any law firm, conference room or convenience store.

Personally, I’ve always felt it was a give-and-take between the two. I understand these are delicate waters impossible to perfectly navigate. I really do.

For those 30-45 minutes, North American professional sports leagues have decreed that the sanctity of the locker room will be breached. A player doesn’t have to bear his soul to me or anyone else in that time. We don’t have to know each other at all. When the bass is booming and it’s loud — whether it’s Guns N’ Roses in the NHL or Jay Z in the NBA — it’s impossible to have any meaningful interaction anyway.

But when the lyrics are just outright derogatory toward woman and gays and include multiple N-word references, some of those forced to listen are going to feel uncomfortable — reporters and, yes, players and coaches, too — and we are never going to have a chance at any kind of working relationship and mutual respect.

I shouldn’t want to have to prove my street cred — Wanna see my Jay Z ticket stub? My vintage Run-DMC T-shirt? — to have an opinion on what’s patently offensive.

No one would suggest allowing pornography to be streamed on locker-room plasma screens while reporters were present. Yet the suggestion that inflicting offensive language on a group of people trying to do their jobs is suddenly about the ethnicity of the offended? By that logic, the Sterling controversy was about America being obtusely offended by the language of an octogenarian white man and refusing to sympathize with his background.

No.

This discussion isn’t about the 50-year-old columnist who raised it any more (or less) than it’s about the young female reporter who was clearly bothered by some of the gender-degrading lyrics thundering in the Pacers’ locker room — or the Pacers player who looked at her and put his hands up, as if to say, “Sorry, I didn’t put it on.”

This is simply about a group of mostly well-intentioned individuals, most of whom happen to be black, needing to consider using their headphones if they want to listen to lyrics that would be commonly considered denigrating and explicit.

You can’t ban Sterling from NBA arenas in the interest of inclusiveness and at the same time allow misogynist, racial and gay slurs to roar through the speakers of your locker rooms.

And you can’t vilify one aging white guy for his disgusting, hurtful thoughts and words and then vilify another for suggesting similarly disgusting, hurtful words have no place in our world.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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