NBA players didn’t protest Donald Sterling until his racism was directed at one of their own

Jason Reid
Columnist April 28

NBA officials and owners have justifiably come under fire for looking the other way for decades regarding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is said to be the voice making racist remarks on a recently released recording and has a history of making offensive comments. If they had acted long ago — especially David Stern, Commissioner Adam Silver’s predecessor — perhaps the current powder-keg situation could have been averted.

But as league observers parse out blame for the first public relations crisis of Silver’s tenure, another group deserves some: NBA players. Although the recording is potentially the first inconvertible audio proof that Sterling is a dunderhead racist, many players were aware of his wrongheaded views.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Yet there wasn’t much uproar following Sterling’s sworn testimony in a 2002 housing discrimination case, during which the NBA’s longest-tenured owner said African Americans “smell and aren’t clean.” Throughout the years, high-profile players refused to challenge owners on their lack of action against Sterling, unwilling to risk their celebrity status and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals.

The fact they didn’t, at least not en masse, contributed to this mess. So what is different about this case that makes many players express outrage now? It’s obvious: Sterling allegedly attacked one of their own.

In the recording obtained by TMZ, the voice widely believed to be Sterling’s stresses he doesn’t want his girlfriend to be seen in public with minorities, singling out a photo of her with Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. In the NBA, Johnson is considered royalty. The five-time NBA champion is an international sports icon.

Besides being one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, Johnson has an ownership stake in Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He has had a wildly successful post-playing career as an entrepreneur and an NBA analyst. In the most powerful circles, Johnson is someone who commands respect.

Yet by making it clear he would rather not have his girlfriend pictured with Johnson, or have people like Johnson attend Clippers games, the voice reduced Johnson to nothing but a color. From the players’ perspective, that means Sterling essentially sees a nameless, faceless black man when he looks at Johnson and, in turn, them. For NBA players, that has been a jarring realization.

By societal standards, NBA players are highly paid. They’re among the nation’s elite in virtually every way success is measured. Generally speaking, they rarely interact with the people whom Sterling slurred in the slumlord case. Once Johnson became the face of Sterling’s alleged racism, it hit home.

For most people, our level of interest in something is directly related to how closely it affects us and those close to us. In that sense, it’s not surprising NBA players previously stood on the sideline regarding Sterling. It doesn’t make them horrible. It just means they’re human. It’s also good they’re finally getting into the game.

Players have an important role in any plan to oust Sterling from the league. Miami’s LeBron James is at the front of the movement.

As the furor over the tape spread throughout the league Saturday, the NBA’s best player made it clear Silver must act swiftly and decisively because “there’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA — there is no room for him.”

After the tape was released, Silver quickly faced pressure internally from players to begin the process of forcing Sterling to sell the franchise. Monday night, players for the Heat, Bobcats, Spurs and Mavericks made on-court gestures of solidarity against Sterling during their playoff games. Earlier in the day, corporate sponsors cut ties with the Clippers. With the financial viability of the NBA potentially at stake — a league-wide boycott could occur soon if Sterling remains in power — Silver should have no problems galvanizing support among owners to figure out how to dump Sterling.

By maintaining his old-school activist approach, James will keep the heat on them. To his credit, he has displayed more willingness to engage in social activism than most superstars have shown in decades. In 2012, he led the Heat’s efforts to speak out about the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old Florida high school student who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain.

James took a stand on the controversial case while realizing he could do damage to his A-list status as a corporate pitchman. For that, James should be applauded. There’s only one sensible way to view the overt racism expressed on the audiotape.

The NBA waited too long to deal with Sterling. Players share in that burden, too. But you know what they say: Better late than never.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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