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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Sterling a “villain,” but scandal is troubling for many reasons

Former Lakers A.C. Green, left, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar address the media during a press conference in response to the NBA decision on Donald Sterling at Los Angeles City Hall. (Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
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Related: Clippers owner Donald Sterling has prostate cancer

In a piece for Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in on the Donald Sterling scandal, and he offered a welcome dose of perspective. The Hall-of-Fame center — one of the most intellectually inclined and iconoclastic athletes ever — pointed out that while Sterling deserves every bit of criticism that comes his way, the scandal in which the Clippers owner is enmeshed has some very troubling aspects beyond just his recent comments.

Abdul-Jabbar first notes that Sterling had been revealed to be prejudiced years before, yet little of today’s outrage ensued. Is that because the victims of Sterling’s racism back then were anonymous, working-class people, not revered celebrities?

I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?
He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Then there’s the manner in which this scandal was brought about:

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizens’ privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it.

This is a very important point. Amid the hullabaloo over what a terrible person Sterling is, the fact that he was taken down through a distinctly ends-justify-the-means method has been largely glossed over. With governmental agencies ever more intrusive, and ordinary people increasingly in possession of sophisticated technologies, the public needs to be sensitive to the boundaries we all hope would apply to our private lives.

Abdul-Jabbar’s comments echo those of ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock, who cautions athletes currently celebrating Sterling’s predicament that it sets a precedent they may come to regret:

A right to privacy is at the very foundation of American freedoms. It’s a core value. It’s a mistake to undermine a core value because we don’t like the way a billionaire exercises it. What happens when a disgruntled lover gives TMZ a tape of a millionaire athlete expressing a homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-white perspective?

The same week Abdul-Jabbar’s piece in Time was published, he stood in front of Los Angeles City Hall and praised the heavy punishment Sterling received, saying, “It’s going to be a new day here in the city and a whole lot of Clipper fans are going to have a whole lot more to smile about.”

So Abdul-Jabbar isn’t nearly as jaded as sports sociologist Earl Smith, who told The Washington Post, “I don’t think anything has changed. Some guy gets caught talking to his girlfriend, and it becomes convenient to throw him to the wolves and hope like hell that none of the other owners have to come front and center and actually talk about this stuff.”

Still, Abdul-Jabbar reminds us that, even with a story as seemingly all-encompassing as the Sterling saga, it’s important to see the bigger picture. Or, as he put it:

So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. …
Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.