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How Donald Sterling’s Apologists Give Private Bigotries a Pass

| May 4, 2014

Night falls on the Staples Center. (John Coke)

Night falls on the Staples Center. (John Coke)

Nine months ago it was Paula Deen. Six months ago it was Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.” And here we are again, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver having done the most he could do under the NBA’s bylaws to, at long last, rid his league of the contemptible Donald Sterling.


The sad thing, though, is that sooner rather than later there will be another person of prominence whose private bigotry will be revealed. And we will again be asking ourselves, as Los Angeles Laker Steve Nash reminded us in the wake of Silver’s decision, if bigotry is a learned response, how then do we eradicate it? As quickly and as forcefully as Silver moved, and as quickly as people from all walks of life weighed in on Sterling’s taped remarks, which were first heard this past weekend, we also heard from Sterling’s apologists.

If racism and intolerance are learned, it is the Donald Trumps of the world who are the teachers. Trump stepped forward to lecture us on who really was to blame for Sterling’s remarks—his young-enough-to-be-his-granddaughter girlfriend. In Trump world, billionaires are taken advantage of by scheming women, who routinely tape-record them for profit. If that’s the case here, the recorded dialogue demonstrates that if the young lady was trying to get Sterling to indict himself, she knew exactly what buttons to push to get him yammering.

At the same time, Rush Limbaugh (the other name in addition to Trump’s I swore I’d never include in a column) said the whole thing was a plot by Democrats to punish Sterling for not donating enough money to President Obama. Calling Sterling “a typical Hollywood Democrat,” Limbaugh neglected to mention that Sterling is a registered Republican. And, lest we forget, it is Republicans who lately have been tripping over their wingtips in their haste to distance themselves from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose pro-slavery views found an echo of sorts in Donald Sterling’s pillow talk.

At his press conference, Silver was asked if any of Sterling’s past history—he was sued unsuccessfully for discrimination by NBA legend Elgin Baylor and paid a large fine to the government for trying to evict blacks from his apartment complexes—was weighed as he made his decision. Silver, who gave clipped, lawyerly answers to almost every question, said that he was only in a position to punish this latest transgression, which directly affected the players of the NBA. The answer was an artful dodge, and not an entirely accurate one—perhaps in deference to his predecessor and mentor, David Stern. As one commentator noted, Stern was ever mindful of the misery the late, litigious Al Davis caused his fellow NFL owners, and tended to cower in the face of Sterling’s willingness to embark on expensive lawsuits.


The problem with Silver’s response was that Major League Baseball, a far more conservative entity than the NBA, had already established a precedent of sorts by suspending Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 1974 after his conviction for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. The offense had nothing to do with his baseball activities, but he was forced to sit out for two seasons (the baseball commissioner later reduced the ban to 15 months). Similarly, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was banned for life for expressing her admiration for Adolf Hitler, a decidedly off-the-field issue.

So it’s difficult to explain how Sterling had lasted this long in a league that is not only more than three-quarters black, but whose greatest players—Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, Jordan and LeBron James—are African American. In its years-long, hands-off treatment of Sterling, the NBA could rightly be accused of inviting this week’s fiasco just as the league is beginning its playoffs.

As with Deen and Robertson, I know this space will be followed by comments from those who pretend not to sympathize with Sterling’s worlds while insisting on his right to hold whatever views his narrow mind has room for. And, just as before, that is utter nonsense. Our country can only move beyond its present ugly divisions when people who have attained power and influence actively work to promote tolerance. Doing nothing is no longer acceptable.

Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.

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19 Responses for “How Donald Sterling’s Apologists Give Private Bigotries a Pass”

  1. Steve Wolfe says:

    Tolerance of what, Steve? I don’t understand who or what should be tolerated. I think we should be talking about pressing the issue of equality. Tolerance suggests just putting up with something, which would allow bigotry to survive out of sight. Bigotry is a disease of the heart. Lots of these older owners and other rich folks will soon be gone and their bigotry will die with them. But as with hatred or intolerance of any kind, it can’t be washed out of someone’s soul with a firehose of public outrage. They have to give it up.

    Equality is, I think, a more relevant matter because it is a given, a birthright. That, too must be taught. It would be a valuable substitute for lessons of bigotry that prior generations received as cultural conditioning. The big names you have cited are but a handful of influential, yet somewhat disconnected people, insulated from some of the cultural change that most of us are fluent in. They and their gaffs are but speedbumps in the course of cultural change. But there is work for all sides to do. I think we’ll get there one day.

    Big, fat mouths are not our most serious issue, not even close. Last time I checked, words still can’t hurt me.

  2. Yellowstone says:

    “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses”, he said.

    Now how could anyone not like a guy like that?

  3. Mary Cannady says:

    It may take generations to eradicate bigotry, not just the die off of old bigots and racists. When the day comes, after generations of mixed marriages, when we are all of the same color, then and maybe then we may escape it.

  4. THE VOICE OF REASON says:

    Whether you agree with him or not, the First Amendment says he has every right to be a bigot if he wants to.

    • ryan says:

      Well we have the freedom to criticize and teach that people like him are slime. It is not a violation of someone’s rights to debunk them or expose them. It works both ways.

    • barbie says:

      Yes, it does say that. But the First Amendment does not protect him from repercussions from the public. It only protects him from GOVERNMENT prosecution. What Donald Sterling went through was called The Free Market at work.

      We’ll never get over bigotry if we aren’t educated enough to know the damn difference between what the First Amendment does and what it does NOT do.

  5. My Daily Rant says:

    It seems like Liberals only believe that Whites are Racists,Have you listened to a Rap song lately or the Black Panthers calling for the death of White Babies I found it funny Oprah Winfry called all Whites Racist because some don’t believe in what obamas doing as President. White people have carried the burden of being called a Racist for everything we do and say, Call me a Racist but I don’t want my Girlfriend bringing just Black Men where ever she goes,And as far as Phil Robertson goes he was being interviewed and spoke about his beliefs sorry there not the same as yours.Hey Steve theres two sides of the coin don’t tell Whites they cant do something while the rest of the races are getting away with it daily.

    • Bill says:

      Great rant! Tolerance to our political left IS seeing all things their way if your opinion differs from theirs then you are intolerant.

    • Nancy N. says:

      “Call me a Racist but I don’t want my Girlfriend bringing just Black Men where ever she goes”

      All right, I will. It is racist to care one way or the other what color people a person associates with. Because it means that the first and/or only thing you are noticing about those people are what color they are, and you are making a judgement about associating with them based solely on that.

      I choose my friends based on their values, their humanity, their taste and shared interests and their humor…not what color their skin is.

  6. Anonymous says:

    No doubt, and no argument that racism is not a two way street. But think back a few decades and remind me of how many blacks hung white people from a tree because of the color of their skin, or that a white man looked at one of their women, or worse yet maybe whistled. Granted things have improved out there since the days of “Strange Fruit”, but it will take efforts on both sides to heap this onto the scrap pile of our nasty history.

    • Steve Wolfe says:

      I’ve always been cognizant of that history. I try to imagine how I would handle the specter of such an ominous history if it were my kin. I also engage African Americans on the subject from time to time. I try to learn from them. I can’t relate to it, and I admit it. The atrocities endured by my ancestors is more remote, unless I have kin from the Holocaust that I didn’t know about. But I don’t know who I would hold to account now. I don’t know what it would serve. I have been trying to make my life, my family’s life, and to whatever extent I can, the rest of the world better. So I just love everyone.

  7. karma says:

    And yet Sterling is a Democrat donor. Go figure.

  8. ryan says:

    This guy is a racist and looks at his black players as money makers. He may have a right to say what he did, but the first amendment dose not protect him from being called a racist and told he is wrong, only from prosecution. At least we are having to deal with real racism for a change.

  9. Sherry Epley says:

    I personally detest the way he really believes that he clothes and feeds his players (just like the plantation owners did) when it really is the other way around. Those extremely talented “black” players made him very wealthy. The man is not just racist, he is more toxic than that. . . he is a completely deluded racist! He simply has no clue just how despicable he really is!

  10. JGarcia says:

    The more Sterling talks, the deeper his foot is implanted in his mouth. A sad old man.

  11. ryan says:

    It is sad how cowardly the media has become by sweeping hate crimes under the rug. look what you guys did about the Sikh temple shooting or the attack on the Jewish community center a few weeks ago. Stop ignoring it. You won’t have blood on your hands if one of those violent racists get angry and hurt somebody. They need to not be allowed to hide in the shadows. Racist violence is not freedom of expression.

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