The NBA has announced that it is to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, for life for his recent racist comments: a decision which gives rise, broadly speaking, to two immediate comments. The first is “thank goodness” and the second is “what took you so long?” Somewhere, in the loud outpouring of public catharsis that accompanies this decision, the sound of this uncomfortable question may be lost. Yet, if fundamental progress is to be made, it is one that we must strain to hear.
So, again: “what took you so long?” After all, Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1984. When LeBron James remarked that there was “no place for Sterling in this league”, the brutal truth was that the NBA had not only indulged his place in the league for thirty years, but allowed him to sup at its very highest table. When Sterling soon leaves the NBA, following the forced sale of his organisation, with a windfall of hundreds of millions, it may be said of him that he was merely a system error, that he was merely a flawed outlier among a group of mostly decent owners. The worrying reality is that he may have been the system’s logical result.
In Europe, meanwhile, the Barcelona and Brazil defender Dani Alves attracted worldwide and much-deserved praise for his defiance of a racist Villareal fan, by picking up and eating a banana which the supporter had thrown at him. Alves’ action triggered a carefully pre-planned viral campaign, where countless footballers, celebrities and members of the public showed solidarity with Alves, posting a series of selfies in which they, too, were eating bananas. Like Donald Sterling, the fan was banned from his club for life.
Villareal, like the NBA, did the right thing in acting swiftly; but, like the NBA, they hopefully won’t let themselves off the hook so easily. They should ask why the crowd’s atmosphere enabled this Villareal fan to make a gesture that might have caused King Leopold to cackle. Often, when incidents like this occur, they are written off as the work of an ignorant minority. Yet, for every person who stands up to throw a banana at a black player, how many more silently think of the same player as somewhat less than human?
You have to wonder. In both the US and Europe, these visceral outbursts of racism are like the appearance of lesions on the skin of society: they are merely symptoms of a severe underlying illness. Specifically: Donald Sterling is a very wealthy man, and the one sure thing about wealth is that you need a very large infrastructure of people to help you acquire it and then keep it. So how many powerful people, knowing of the thoroughly consistent racism on which he built part of his property empire, stood on the same platforms as him and vouched for him as a colleague and friend? And why is it only now that they suddenly see his opinions as apocalyptic in their horror? Was it because his prejudice finally threatened to hit them in the two most painful places of all: their reputations, and their wallets?
The most striking thing about the Donald Sterling and the Villareal incidents is that, in both cases, change had to be forced from outside, not from within. Had it not been for the actions of a disgruntled lover and a media-savvy footballer, this conversation would not be taking place at all, which suggests a dangerous complacency about the racism throughout the structures of professional sport. The onus must be taken away from the victims of racial discrimination to respond most effectively to the injustice that they have suffered. The current dynamic is too often a case of “ah, it appears that someone has set you on fire. Well, best find some water to put yourself out.”
This NBA decision should not be seen as the final act on this matter, but as the beginning of a new direction that involves severe penalties. For example, not only should people like Sterling be fined for such behaviour but, upon the forced sale of their franchise, perhaps they should receive a further penalty, expressed as a large percentage of their profit: a “bigotry tax”, if you will. There should also be a careful look at the racial diversity of the NBA’s executives, since there is a striking disparity between the percentage of non-white players in the NBA – some 81 per cent – the percentage of non-white coaches – some 47 per cent – and the number of non-white owners – just three per cent, or one out of thirty. Charles Barkley referred to the NBA, given the racial composition of its athletes, as “a black league”; but, at the ownership level, it is still overwhemingly a white one.
Football’s governing bodies – UEFA, in Europe, and FIFA, worldwide – must observe the Sterling affair closely. After all, football’s clubs also exhibit a troubling lack of diversity at managerial and boardroom level. Of course, FIFA and UEFA are also in an ideal position to apply pressure to those who bankroll the game. One thing that they could usefully do is to identify clubs with a consistent history of racial discrimination, and then warn the sponsors of those clubs that they will be denied the opportunity of being FIFA and UEFA’s official partners at international tournaments: a corporate veto, if you will. The sponsors can then either urge the clubs to change their ways, part company with them, or endure the subsequent damage to their reputations.
It is all very well banning individuals who remind us of the ills that riddle our society. But merely stopping there allows us to maintain the fiction that these acts are freak occurrences, rather than the end product of frequent and openly indulged prejudice. It is only by addressing this awkward reality that we will get anywhere, and that the dismissals of Sterling and the Villareal fan will have any worthwhile legacy.