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Contretemps on the Court

The best players in the world are showcasing their skills in the National Basketball Association’s playoffs, but all the sports world can talk about is a spat between one of the team owners and his girlfriend.
For unknown reasons the spat between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and paramour V. Stiviano was recorded on audio tape, for unknown reasons the tape wound up in the hands of the widely-read TMZ.com celebrity gossip internet site, and for obvious reasons it has since become the biggest basketball brouhaha in a while. Any argument between a married and fabulously wealthy white 81-year-old sports mogul and his 26-year-old half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend will provoke a certain amount of prurient interest in the readers of celebrity gossip sites, but this argument concerned his objections to her publicizing her friendships with blacks and Hispanics on social media. Add the element of race to such a salacious story and the media coverage goes into the full-press mode usually reserved for missing Malaysian airliners, other celebrities weigh in with their indignation, major figures in the sport call for the offender’s banishment, and even the President of the United States feels obliged to interrupt a trade mission to Asia to add his disapproving comment.
This all seems rather inordinate, although there’s certainly no defending the comments Sterling can be heard making. We listened to the entirety of his telephoned confrontation with his girlfriend, despite the creepy voyeuristic feelings it induced, and could not escape the consensus conclusion that he’s a racist as well as an all-around jerk. The world is rife with racists of all colors, however, and if the media intend to occupy themselves with chastising all the all-around jerks there won’t be time left cover any of the issues of real significance. When the controversy starts to overshadow the scores, some perspective is required.
Having duly acknowledged the repugnant racism of Sterling’s side of the conversation, we’d like to note a few other issues that will be largely overlooked among the mass harrumphing. There’s a troubling matter of how we wound up listening to what an American citizen had every right to expect was a private conversation, for one thing. We are as ardent defenders of freedom of the press as any of the big media that are piling scorn on Sterling, but we also believe in a sufficient sphere of privacy to allow for contentious conversations with girlfriends. Our suspicion is that all of Sterling’s critics, right up to the President, would also prefer some privacy regarding such matters.
Also worth noting is how very odd Sterling’s views seem. Aside from the oddity of a octogenarian white man spouting racist opinions to his 20-something mixed-race girlfriend, and the irony of a registered Democrat who routinely signs multi-million paychecks to the black employees who have lately made his business successful objecting to any association with minorities, Sterling’s rant is strikingly archaic. At one point in the conversation he tells his girlfriend that he objects her being seen in the company of other minorities because “I live in a culture,” and he insists that culture will bring its opprobrium down on any inter-ethnic friendships. Apparently being an 81-year-old multi-billionaire can leave one so very disassociated with modern society that Sterling did not realize that now society brings its opprobrium down on anyone who doesn’t conscientiously seek out such relationships, but we assume he has by now been brought up to date. Some critics have seized the opportunity to lament how very common Sterling’s views are, but they’d be hard-pressed to explain why they’re still newsworthy.
Calls for Sterling’s banishment from the NBA further raise the question of whether someone’s property rights should be voided as a result of his opinions, no matter how repulsive those opinions might be. The owner of the Dallas Mavericks franchise has endorsed the “911 truther” conspiracy theories, which we find highly offensive, and professional sports team owners in general are a sleazy lot ever-eager to reach into the taxpayers’ wallets and gorge their most loyal customers, but purging the business of all but the righteous will leave us with an insufficient amount of sports.
There’s something uncomfortable, too, about the way that contemporary society so severely punishes any deviation from its latest orthodoxy on race. The same scorn that is heaped on the likes of outright racists such as Sterling also falls on the likes of Charles Murray, the brilliant sociologist who inspired the welfare reform that did so much to benefit black America, or Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court Justice who bravely works for a truly color-blind legal system, or countless others who criticize the policies that have lately brought high unemployment and declining wealth to the minorities of America.
Then again, we never did care for Sterling. Old-time basketball fans will recall the decades when the Clippers were the laughingstocks of professional American sports, with Sterling’s tightfistedness and propensity to overrule the basketball experts in his employ the obvious causes of their ineptitude, and we’re disinclined to root for any team located in Los Angeles. We have an admiration for the play of former University of Oklahoma Sooner Blake Griffin and the unabashedly nerdish Chris Paul, and like that they have supplanted the hated Los Angeles Lakers as the city’s top team, but even before the latest revelations we were never Clippers fans. The Clippers’ owner is apparently a racist and an all-around jerk, but we’ll just keep hoping the Boston Celtics can get another Bill Russell or Larry Bird and turn our attention to more consequential stories.

–Bud Norman

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