Random Thoughts on Donald Sterling

I’ve stayed pretty quiet on this Donald Sterling mess. For anybody living under a rock, Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, was recorded saying some racist things to his then-girlfriend about not wanting her to associate with black people (don’t take photos with them, don’t bring them to games, etc). Everyone freaked out and it only took the NBA about two days to dole out the punishment: lifetime suspension, meaning he can’t attend games or league offices; and a $2.5 million fine, the maximum the NBA can give out to its owners. A vote will also be put to the Board of Governors (the rest of the owners) on whether to force him to sell the team, which would require a super-majority to pass and I am sure it will if no reason other than the PR disaster that would ensue if you were the owner that did not support it.

Some Misconceptions

First important note: $2.5 million is nothing to Sterling. This isn’t an overreaction in any kind of financial sense. The team is worth more than $500 million and with their recent success combined with the Lakers’ recent decline, that number is going to continue climbing. Sterling also owns a real estate business worth millions, which is what allowed him to buy the team in the first place.

Second important note: this isn’t about free speech rights. He didn’t break any laws and he isn’t being punished in any legal ways. What he broke was the terms of being an NBA owner, terms which he agreed to when he came on board. If an employee says something to harm the brand, the employer has the right to fire him – with any relevant legal protections like severance pay, of course.

Third important note: he isn’t being forced to hand over the team (property forfeiture as one commenter I saw put it). He’s (probably) being forced to sell the team at a massive profit. There’s probably some emotional pain for him, sure, if he has some personal attachment to the team, but we’re definitely not talking about the NBA stealing his property and giving it to somebody else.

The 21st Century Plantation

The problem exposed by Sterling’s speech is that the NBA – and many businesses – are still effectively a plantation system. There’s some rich white people, typically men, at the top. The one exception of course is Michael Jordan owning a big chunk of the Bobcats. There are predominately black people at the bottom. Yes, those people at the bottom are still getting paid pretty well – a 2nd round draft pick will still get over half a million for that initial contract and average player salary is a couple million, I think. Even holding the job for only a few years, if the money is invested well, could pretty much cover you for life. That part is obviously different than the plantations of old. But we’re still talking about massive profit for the white man at the top, relaxing in their offices while predominately black people work extremely hard and risk injuries. Sterling didn’t cause that unequal system, but that is a very legitimate problem that Sterling’s speech made plain.

The Scapegoating Problem

My biggest thought, though, was in watching the vitriol against him. It was a classic example of scapegoating. We all pointed at him, made him racism incarnate, and cast him out from the camp. And we’ll probably all feel good about ourselves for not being like him without ever bothering to consider any ways that we contribute to the same racist systems. We simply celebrate that the bad guy has been punished and can go on our happy ways. This keeps us from ever repenting of our own sins.

It also keeps us from viewing Sterling as another human being, made in the image of God just as much as we are even if the image is marred in that particular way. It makes him out to be our enemy and then excuses us from the command to love our enemy, because c’mon, we aren’t really going to give any human dignity to such a terrible person as him, right? It’s one thing for Jesus to forgive those who tortured and killed him, but surely Jesus couldn’t expect us to forgive somebody for saying something racist? Unfortunately, if we want to follow Jesus’ example, this scapegoating approach isn’t acceptable. It doesn’t make him immune to (relatively mild) consequences by any means, but God loves Donald Sterling, too.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.