This week there were blatant signs that America was not yet a “postracial” society. First we were treated to the spectacle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, hailed by the libertarian right for his stand against a federal government he deemed non-existent, telling a NY Times reporter that Blacks abort their young children and put their young men in jail “because they never learned how to pick cotton.”
Fast on his heels, Donald Sterling, the 81 year old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team with a Black coach and star guard who also happens to be the president of the players’ union, was caught saying over the phone to his 38 year old girlfriend—of mixed Latino and Black ancestry—that she should stop showing up at his arena with so many Blacks. Quoting Sterling:
It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?
You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.
I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.
…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.
This was all on a tape that his girlfriend released to TMZ, a gossip website.
This story has burst through the seams of sports and become a hot topic on television news and the newspapers. In today’s NY Times, William C. Rhoden, a Black sports reporter, wrote:
The more compelling question for the league’s players is whether they will speak out — or act out — against Sterling. And what about the league’s other owners? How will they respond? Will they remain silent? Will they issue a collective statement? Or will individual owners like the usually vocal Mark Cuban, who declined to address the Sterling issue, send their own messages?
Mark Cuban has a reputation for being one of the more progressive-minded owners (his Dallas team, like Sterling’s, is in the playoffs). He also owns Magnolia Pictures, a prime distributor of hard-hitting documentaries including one based on the the March 2006 rape, murder, and burning of 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her parents and younger sister by U.S. soldiers.
But I am not that surprised he declined to comment on the Sterling affair. Cuban is a diehard libertarian and as such views property rights as sacrosanct, just like the Nevada rancher.
In digging into Sterling’s past, I made the discovery that he was born to Jewish immigrants surnamed Tokowitz. Like many men getting off the boat, his father made a living as a peddler just like my grandmother. Sterling’s father peddled fruit while my grandmother pushed clothing.
Sterling started off in Los Angeles as a divorce lawyer but soon switched to real estate cases. That led in turn to a full-time real estate business that included properties in Black and Latino neighborhoods. This is where his racism first reared its ugly head. Dave Zirin, a radical sportswriter for the Nation Magazine, details his sordid past:
Sterling is also the Slumlord Billionaire, a man who made his fortune by building low-income housing, and then, according to a Justice Department lawsuit, developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties. In November of 2009, Sterling settled the suit with the US Department of Justice for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case involving apartment rentals. Reading the content of the suit makes you want to shower with steel wool. Sterling just said no to rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown and just said hell-no to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Sterling, who has a Blagojevichian flair for the language, says he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
One of my earliest memories was visiting “Tante Leya” in New York with my mother—I must have been 10 years old or so. This was most likely my grandmother’s cousin who spoke no English. After spending two of the longest hours in my life as Leya and my mother chatted in Yiddish over tea and cookies, we finally left to go downtown—probably to see the Radio City Christmas show or something like that. In the elevator, my mother turned to me and said,”Leya is a slumlord. She buys buildings and rents the apartments to Negros who complain about rats and broken boilers.” That was the first time in my life I heard the term slumlord.
At 81, Sterling’s values were a lot closer to Tante Leya’s than mine. This was a man who worshipped money not “Jewish values”. When a Satmar Hasidic slumlord was killed a few months ago, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, a case in which Inspector Poirot was stymied by the fact that a multitude of people had motives to kill the victim. The Satmar was such a crook and so callous in his dealings with Black tenants that it was impossible to figure out who killed him. If Donald Sterling ever ends up with a knife in the back, the cops will have the same problem.
A Sports Illustrated profile on Sterling from 2000 analyzes his cheapskate behavior as a reaction to childhood poverty. Michael Selsman, his former publicist, told SI: “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything. With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” Not every Jew who lived through the Great Depression ended up in quite that manner. My mother complained bitterly about my father’s reluctance to buy a house in the roaring 1950s but understood it as a reaction to childhood poverty. That being said, my father—like most Depression era men—had no ambition to build an economic empire over hapless victims, particularly Black people.
Perhaps taking the advice of another publicist concerned about his shitty reputation, Sterling got involved in a project to benefit Los Angeles’s enormous homeless population but like everything else the billionaire gets involved with, it was nothing but a scam. The Los Angeles Weekly reported in 2008:
These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense: Witness his regular advertisements proclaiming another “humanitarian of the year” award — for himself. From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.
“He uses every opportunity to have it announced somewhere,” says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs the Skid Row day-care and education center Las Familias del Pueblo. “But it sounds like a phantom project to me.”
Like many other scumbags who made a fortune (George Steinbrenner, Fred Wilpon, James Dolan) in some other type of business, Sterling decided to buy a professional sports team at the top of his game. In 1981, he bought the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that was nowhere near as prestigious as the Los Angeles Lakers (Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s team) but a bargain at twice the price. His initial 12.5 million dollar investment is now worth a half-billion.
The SI profile captures a man who would make Scrooge McDuck look like Lucky Jim Fitzsimmons. He suggested to coach Paul Silas that they could save money if he taped the players’ ankles.
Nobody ever bothered to challenge Sterling until the superstar Elgin Baylor became general manager. Baylor was committed to making the team competitive even if it meant demanding that his boss open up his wallet. After 22 years of fighting a losing battle, Baylor was probably relieved to be fired in 2008 but not so much so to prevent him from filing a racial discrimination case against Sterling. The LA Times reported:
In the original lawsuit, Baylor said that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the Clippers and accused the owner of a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” during long-ago contract negotiations with Danny Manning. The lawsuit also quoted Sterling as telling Manning’s agent, “I’m offering you a lot of money for a poor black kid.”
Baylor alleged Sterling said he wanted the Clippers to be “composed of ‘poor black boys from the South’ and a white head coach.”
It should of course come as no surprise that Sterling was a sexist pig as well as a racist. ESPN, a sports magazine similar to Sports Illustrated, Jason Easly recounts his scandalous abuse of women. Christine Jaksy, a former employee, sued Sterling for sexual harassment in 1996. ESPN states:
Jaksy first worked for Sterling in 1993, as a hostess at one of his “white parties,” where guests dressed Gatsby style at his Malibu beach house; she eventually went into property management. Jaksy testified that Sterling offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors. She also testified that he told her, “You don’t need your lupus support groups I’m your psychiatrist.” Jaksy left her job in December 1995, handing Sterling a memo that read in part, “The reason I have to write this to you is because in a conversation with you I feel pressured against a wall and bullied in an attempt to be overpowered. I’m not about to do battle with you.” She carried a gun because, according to her testimony, she feared retribution.
One of the most shocking revelations about Donald Sterling was the NAACP’s decision to present him with a Lifetime Achievement award this year. (Of course, they also decided to give a Man of the Year award to the snitch Al Sharpton.) Even though they made the decision to present the award before the phone call tape was released to TMZ, they must have been aware of all his other anti-Black words and actions. What prompted them to overlook this was his handing out of from 2 to 3 thousand tickets to Black youth for home games of the LA Clippers. They have since rescinded the award.
Professional sports fascinates me both as a fan and as a critic of American society. What makes it unique is the tension between private ownership and the public’s sense that it is “their team”. Toward the end of the NBA season, New Yorkers planned to stage a protest against owner Jim Dolan in front of Madison Square Garden. They were sick and tired of his meddling in the team’s business, making decisions that undercut the team’s fortunes. Apparently nervous that the protest might lead to more escalated forms of action such as a boycott, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, a basketball legend like Elgin Baylor, to run the team and promised to not interfere.
When you listen to sports fans calling in to WFAN or the ESPN station in New York, they sound more informed about the team than Jim Dolan. Unlike their generally passive acceptance of whatever Chase Manhattan Bank has up its sleeves to screw the working person, the sports fan is ready to take to the barricades in order to win a championship. In the documentary “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky states:
Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about — keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in (discussions of) sports (as opposed to political and social issues). I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
If and when that passion becomes devoted to challenging the corporate system as a whole, we might finally see the possibility of realizing that old-time vision of a Socialist America.