In the midst of an extraordinary start to the NBA Playoffs, the timing of the racist comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is unfortunate. Not that there is ever a good time to be a racist, but it unfairly shifts the limelight away from the players in their biggest moments. The recorded audio – in which Sterling asks his girlfriend not to associate with black people and not to bring black people to Clipper games – casts a shadow on a league, when we should be celebrating the actions on the court.
However, on the other hand, maybe the timing is perfect. Sterling has a history of slimy racism, from housing discrimination to employment discrimination, much of which has been conveniently overlooked by the league. The fact that these recordings were released when the NBA is garnering particularly high attention from the outside world means that the league and its members have to respond, and act.
Clippers players staged a solemn, silent protest on the court before their game against the Golden State Warriors. New league commissioner Adam Silver announced the NBA was launching an investigation and labeled Sterling’s comments as “truly offensive and disturbing.” Magic Johnson, who Sterling specifically referred to in the recordings, said he would never attend another Clippers game under their current ownership.
It seems the best the league could do is to impose a temporary suspension and encourage Sterling to sell the team; current provision do not really support a permanent suspension or forfeiture of ownership, and would likely “trigger a burdensome lawsuit from the notoriously litigious owner.”
Yet maybe the best response to racism over this past weekend occurred in Spain, during a Barcelona versus Villarreal soccer game. While setting up to take a corner, Barcelona defender Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him from the stands. Without even acknowledging the fan, Alves nonchalantly picked up the banana and ate it, then proceeding to take the corner kick. Perfect.
“If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective,” said Alves after the game.
Instead of emotionally reacting or confronting the opposing fan, Alves’ response took all of the power out of a commonly visible bigoted act, “co-opting the banana as a symbol of potassium, not racism” and spurring a movement among his professional soccer player peers on social media.
The anti-racist movement occurs on two fronts: one approach attempts to take racists out of power, while the other takes the power out of racism.
While the NBA ponders and explores sanctions on Sterling, acts of cooption and non-recognition subvert any claims of legitimacy racist individuals and actions hold.
President Obama gets it: “When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” said Obama while visiting Malaysia, “you just let them talk. And that’s what happened here.”
Sometimes, offensive actions are just as effectively met with a cold shoulder, as a heated condemnation.