Beyond Mythology: Donald Sterling and the Importance of Sport History

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.” Many fans followed his lead. Reflecting on America’s obsession with sport in 1994, historian Richard O. Davies wrote, “The void often left unfulfilled by politics, work, family, or religion has been at least partially filled by an increased involvement in the world of sports.” Implicit in these statements is the notion that, for many fans, sports are a neutral entity — a sacred space — that rises above the petty differences found in religion, politics, and everyday life. For Warren, and other fans, sports were different, and better. To be sure, Davies knew this was not reality, but instead one of the many paradoxes of sport.

Sport remains an integral component of American culture in which much of the population seeks refuge, yet they are also imbued with the complexities of politics, race, religion, sex, gender and sexuality, economics, etc. Over the past several decades the alleged innocence of sport has also increasingly faded away. Reporting on steroids in baseball in 2005, Stephen Cannella of Sports Illustrated suggested, “Earl Warren might find reading the paper tough these days.” Indeed, one wonders how Warren, the author of the landmark Brown v. Board decision, would react to this week’s top story.

Gallons of ink have been spilt on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments this week. Tuesday the National Basketball Association reacted by fining him $2.5 million, banning him for life, and promising to force him out of the league. The NBA’s decision was remarkably swift as the story began to overshadow the first round of the league’s playoffs. Sterling’s comments also alienated at least a dozen sponsors, who withdrew their support of the Clippers. Now sixty years after Brown v. Board, I wonder what Warren would think?

Of course, Sterling’s comments are nothing new to professional sports. Many will remember former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. Twenty years ago she became famous for multiple offensive comments directed at African Americans, Jews, and gays. Major League Baseball reacted similarly to the NBA by fining her $250,000, banning her for the 1993 season, and then, three years later, for another two seasons. After the second ban, Schott got the message and promptly sold the team.

There are differences, of course. As Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer explains, in the NBA “Seventy-five percent of its players and 44 percent of its coaches are black.” He commends the NBA on its diversity and uses its “progress” as a reason why Sterling’s comments are all the more appalling. The real sign of the NBA’s “progress,” however, is the fact that twenty years after Schott, the fine has increased tenfold and the ban is now for life. “With all deliberate speed”; what would Warren think?

Hidden beneath these narrative of “progress,” and the celebration of swift action and firm punishment, is the uncomfortable truth. Sterling has a history of racist behavior — behavior that has had a much more significant material impact on the lives of individuals. Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, curiously asked, “Why has the world suddenly discovered Donald Sterling?” while outlining his sordid past. Anti-Discrimination lawsuits were filed against Sterling in 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2011. While these were mostly for his practices as a slum lord, they also include a case brought by NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor. Likewise, he’s been accused of using racial slurs in contract negotiations and interviews dating back to the 1980s. In short, that Sterling is a racist should not have come as a surprise to anyone, especially not to the NBA.

When asked about Sterling’s past during the press conference announcing his ban, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “I can’t speak to past actions other than to say that when specific evidence was brought to the NBA, we acted.” When asked to clarify how the NBA treated his past and what actions they took, Silver said:

He’s never been suspended or fined by the league because while there have been well documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit. That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention. When those two litigations were brought, they were followed closely by the league office.

The NBA turned a blind eye because the Department of Justice never found him guilty of being a racist. What’s more, Sterling’s past, according to Silver, was not taken into account in the decision to ban him. So, if we’re to believe Silver’s statement, that Sterling’s views “simply have no place in the NBA,” and that the decision to ban him is based solely on his most recent comments, then it’s clear that his racism is perfectly acceptable by Silver and the NBA owners in his business practices outside of the NBA. Indeed, this means that, prior to this week, the NBA tacitly approved of his racism — a brand of racism that affects people’s access to quality and affordable housing.

Though the study of sport began much earlier, in 1995 Elliott Gorn and Michael Oriard challenged more scholars to “Take Sports Seriously.” Their article implored scholars to harness cultural studies and venture out into the sporting world. They asked us to “Think…of the symbiotic ties between inner-city playground basketball and the National Basketball Association championships” and consider the interdependence of consumer culture and smaller subcultures. They prompted us to reflect on the interplay between diversity and the ubiquity of sport, reminding us that “Sports keep bringing us back to the ever-shifting relationship between commercialized mass culture and subcultures of difference.” Donald Sterling highlights these relationship and helps us understand the tenuous place of race, class, and economics within the neoliberalism of modern sport.

Indeed, the NBA’s toleration of Sterling’s racism ended not with formal complaints or legal disputes, but when it became an embarrassment to the sports league and began to threaten its bottom line. In addition to losing sponsors, reports of a possible player boycott threatening to derail the league’s lucrative playoff games pushed the NBA to react. So was it Sterling’s racism or the economic threat that it posed that created change?

The issue of labor is key here. In his comments, Sterling describes his relationship with Clippers players in paternalistic terms:

I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

Sterling sees himself as something of a “great white father” that provides for them — something that he clearly does not do for everyone. His role as an owner has allowed the “inner-city playground” to become a billion-dollar industry. Sterling’s questioning of the hierarchy in professional sport invokes the language of class and privilege, in addition to race, drawing attention to systematic inequality where sport is viewed as a way out and a ticket to social mobility (but clearly not equality in his view). He is doing them a service, which he believes makes him immune to a racist critique. What Sterling clearly ignores, however, is the agency of the players — and their union — and how his history of housing discrimination has played a pivotal role in creating the very impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods from which they’re escaping. His comments this week created an opportunity for the players union to connect these experiences with the power of organized labor and finally push back.

Unsurprisingly, espnW reports that Sterling is also grotesquely misogynistic and sexist. His comments became public because of a legal battle between his wife and his girlfriend. Sterling has been known to parade around with women, flaunting them as trophies. Like his players, he similarly asks his female employees and “girls” (many of them hired) to conform to his desires, treating them as — sometimes nameless — property. In a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Sterling, he is on record as testifying “Every secretary is honey. I’m a flowery man. If you’re having sex with a woman you’re paying for, you always call her honey because you can’t remember her name.” Yet, Sterling’s sexism has aroused little anger amongst the NBA or its fans. Sexism in and around sport remains a serious issue.

It’s clear that the NBA and its owners, like many fans, prefer to steer clear of the controversies of race, class, religion, sex, gender and sexuality, and politics. Racism and stories like this one are distractions from the games on the court and reminders of the real world they’re trying to escape. Even when events like this one do pop up, team owners, fans, and sports media prefer to treat them as isolated events, uncoupling sport and history. They prefer to peddle a narrative of post-racial America built on a mythology aided by sports heroes like Jackie Robinson. They promote a view of sport as a safe space and middle ground where people of all races can improve their material conditions. This mythology allows many Americans to ignore systemic discrimination, such as those seen in the housing practices of Sterling, the representations of Native Americans, the lack of interpreters given to Hispanic baseball players, and continual battle to enforce gender equality in Title IX. to name just a few. One has to wonder if Earl Warren was equally captivated by the mythology of Robinson and the integration of the sports pages in the 1950s? I doubt it.

Moving beyond the common mythologies of sport is at the heart of this new blog. We’ve assembled a collection of sport scholars to offer their incisive understandings on the ways sport acts as lens into American culture. The pieces you’ll see here will explore the paradoxes of sport by connecting and contextualizing sport with history. We seek to highlight questions and narratives that are grounded in a historical understanding of the sporting world and move beyond the sports page. Our writers will offer their mediations on contemporary and historical issues in sport with the goal of reaching a broad audience and starting fruitful conversations.

We also hope to broaden the field of sport history and open up our discourse to those beyond our subfield. Periodically we’ll publish book and film reviews, discussions of issues and panels from our major conferences, and tips for incorporating themes from sport studies into the classroom. Committed to interdisciplinarity, our contributors encompass a variety of academic disciplines from history and religion to kinesiology and sport management.

We recognize that we will not always agree on the perspectives and arguments offered in our articles. With that in mind, readers are encouraged to comment and help us develop an active community. We ask that commenters use their real name, and keep all comments civil and productive. Thanks for joining us on this journey and helping to make this new venture a success. On tap for next week is Adam Park’s research on MMA and the Question of “Sport.”

Andrew McGregor is the founding co-editor and coordinator of Sport in American History. You  can find him on Twitter @admcgregor85 or email him at amcgrego@purdue.edu 

6 thoughts on “Beyond Mythology: Donald Sterling and the Importance of Sport History

  1. Great first article Andrew!
    As a novice in the field of sports history, it seems like the Sterling case brings many different currents into the limelight. How does the “pure” pursuit of sport become shrouded in political, economic and social context? What is the nature of professional sport in relation to Marxist notions of labour, ownership and capitalism? How do spectators and enthusiasts consume sports? ie. how does sports shape spectators world view and how do fans impact owners, leagues, and players? So many complex questions!
    I look forward to learning more.

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  2. Congratulations on this exciting and timely project.

    You write-
    “it’s clear that his racism is perfectly acceptable by Silver and the NBA owners in his business practices outside of the NBA. ” Sterling’s record as a landlord and his previous racist remarks and attitudes are troubling but if we examine the business practices of owners and apply them as a yardstick what individuals or corporations should be allowed to remain as owners or even donors to schools, assuming that the current model of ownership remains? (I am opposed to individuals owning teams, they should be publicly-owned.)
    I taught at the University of Oregon which should be renamed Phil Knight University, the millions he donated to the school gained via Nike’s sweatshop exploitation.

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    • This is a great point, Alon! It echoes many of the concerns that Mark Cuban has voiced over the past few days — where do we draw the line with these, for lack of a better word, “moral” type questions. In other words, at what point does money stop talking and these other concerns take over. I obviously don’t have an answer to that, but it’s something we should consider. I have a lot of personal opinions about the role of ethics/morality in capitalism, and I think your question raises a lot of similar concerns. It’s an important conversation that we should be having, both in sport and beyond.

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  3. Just last week I was talking with students about new fields of history that were still developing, underdeveloped and with some real hope for new insights, and Sports History is one of the fields that came up. I pointed out at the time that there’s a lot written about the history of sports that is more antiquarian than historical, and that the social, economic, political aspects of sports in modern society were going to be interesting, once historians get some real traction.

    I love being right about things like this.

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  4. Pingback: Sport in American History: An Experiment in Digital Public Sport History | Sport in American History

  5. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Two Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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