The comments allegedly made by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, have generated an understandable furor in the United States, with many incensed by the vulgar racism aired in a leaked recording of a supposed conversation between him and a girlfriend. Even President Obama, thousands of miles away on a tour of Asia, was compelled to weigh in on the controversy.
But, as grotesque and unpalatable as the whole situation is, the immediate and near-universal condemnation heaped upon Sterling as the story grew viral is a sign that there is at root a fundamental intolerance for this sort of intolerance in the United States, despite all the racial injustices that remain.
Other parts of the world still have more work to do. Exhibit A: Romania, home of George "Gigi" Becali, possibly the most offensive owner in world sports.
Since 2003, Becali has been in charge of Steaua Bucharest, one of the more famous and historic club sides in Eastern Europe. He is one of Romania's richest men, a former shepherd turned real estate mogul who made his fortune in the chaos that followed the fall of Communism. He served in the European Parliament in Brussels from 2009 to 2012 and then in the Romanian parliament until May, when he was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a dodgy land-swaps deal. (He has a very checkered legal history — including an arrest on kidnapping charges and reports of match-fixing.) He is now in jail but still runs Steaua Bucharest.
But Becali is controversial for a whole other set of reasons: his penchant for homophobic, misogynist, racist rhetoric.
It'll be difficult to itemize every single offensive slur attributed to Becali, a larger-than-life man who has become something of a pantomime villain in the European press. A devout Orthodox Christian, Becali keeps artwork in his home depicting himself as Jesus and various apostles and saints. That religiosity has led to some extreme comments. In 2012, Becali reacted angrily to Lady Gaga's presence in Romania, whom he deemed a "disciple of Satan": "When she comes on the TV, I switch the channels after two seconds and spit on the TV," he said.
Worse are his thoughts on homosexuals. He banned songs by the British band Queen from being played at the stadium because of the sexuality of Queen's late lead singer. In 2010, Becali reportedly blocked the acquisition of a Bulgarian player because of rumors that he was gay. Two years later, after Steaua fans were heard singing homophobic chants, Becali offered this outrageous defense:
There is no excuse for discrimination. Yet, of course, while I love the gays, you must understand: gays cannot be in football teams. The players bathe naked! I love gays, but I'd never employ one. Put one in a team and you'd never win again.
That earned censure elsewhere but did little to diminish his popularity among a segment of Romania's population. Becali, not unlike Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (though more extreme), is a charismatic populist who has deployed his extensive wealth to win the support of a certain conservative base. Some critics see in Becali's slogans and campaigning gestures to the World War II-era Iron Guard, a Romanian fascist movement.
Far-right nationalism is very much alive in parts of Eastern Europe, and Becali's bigotry sadly echoes wider prejudice. He has made dark comments on what he deemed the infiltration of Jews in Romanian politics. He reportedly fired a Turkish coach once "for being too Muslim." He once said women have "no more value" after giving birth. He called an African TV presenter an "ape." He is attributed with making racist remarks about the Roma — the long-marginalized minority group in Eastern Europe known derogatorily as gypsies — and even ethnic Hungarians living in Romania.
And while he has no shortage of critics and opponents, the chances are that Becali will emerge unscathed from his imprisonment, still the owner of Steaua Bucharest as well as one of the world's most repugnant big mouths.