In reality, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is the National Basketball Association’s hero. Putting that in context, the NBA would – obviously – never admit it.
But, the timing of Sterling’s spectacular caught-on-tape faux paus (to put it lightly) was extremely convenient and valuable for the NBA. At the moment, few are really discussing the more significant ownership disparity issue.
Thus, the Sterling controversy came at a time when the NCAA found its March Madness overshadowed by debate, commentary and aggravation over unpaid college athletes, the extent of which led to the unionization of Northwestern University’s football team. That conversation naturally brought up uncomfortable thoughts on race given the heavy proportion of black players feeding the $1 billion plus booming college playoff machine. And it was only a matter of time, since many of those black players end up in the NBA, that we’d be having louder conversations about the cozy neo-plantation set-up NBA owners enjoy at the expense of many an unknowing and financially illiterate baller not able or not willing to understand the broader socio-economic dynamics of their profession.
Nor should they be fully expected to understand that as many are paid multi-millions to do their job, entertain and be amazingly good at what they do. Yet, the episode highlighted what Chris Rock once joked as being the gap between “the rich and the wealthy” – the players may be rich judging by the paychecks they get (so why complain, some may rant), but the owners who cut the checks and sign them are the truly wealthy individuals. The players mostly being black and the owners, all but one, being white.
That arrangement is what’s making quite a few folks uncomfortable when taking a look at the general landscape of the professional basketball business. The Sterling mess, as openly ratchet and foul tasting as it was, smelled no different from other episodes once reactions are compared. We get more drawn into the theatrics than we do the substance. The public, not really all that sophisticated on matters of race as it assumes, gets caught up in the less consequential butter or, rather, the rhetorical level of the conversation. The noise clutters up needed evaluations of the real problem.