When it comes to contrition for awfulness, we set the bar pretty low for rich people. We're usually mollified by a non-apology apology -- "I'm sorry if anyone was offended," which implies that offense just happened. Like we were walking down the street and accidentally stepped in a pile of being offended. Then the offender cuts a check for 1/10,000th of his net worth to a relevant charity, a popcorn fart of fiscal inconvenience. Hey, he did his part. Getting to a point where this contrition doesn't serve our sense of justice usually requires effort.
L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has gone to a lot of effort.
Over the weekend, a recording emerged of Sterling treating his former mistress V. Stiviano terribly and being virulently racist, from which emerged a great cry of "well, duh" from anyone paying attention. This was far from the first time Sterling seemed like he spends his spare time entering himself in trying to resemble a human being contests against a gangrenous wound or a sack of rats and losing. The only relative novelties were these: One, his comments weren't already part of a legal record, appearing more off-the-cuff than his previous vulgarities before the State of California; two, he screwed up and went viral.
Sterling told his half-black, half-latina girlfriend to stay away from black riffraff like the widely admired, charming and telegenic NBA legend Magic Johnson, or at least stop bringing them to Clippers games and being photographed with them. NBA leadership and broadcast media suddenly expressed their outrage, leaving you to wonder why they hadn't before. All this time, Sterling's been as subtle as a George Wallace rally.
ESPN's Chris Broussard characterized Sterling with the kind of language he richly deserves, saying that he "has the mentality of an Antebellum slave master, in that, it's okay to make money off of African-Americans, but he doesn't view them as equal human beings." He could have gone even further, citing Elgin Baylor's discrimination suit against Sterling, in which he stated:
This is behavior straight off the plantation, regarding workers you bought as physical specimens undeserving of privacy or personality, meant to be gawked at. Sterling himself echoes slavery apologetics when defending his own attitudes. On Sunday, Deadspin published an exclusive extended recording of Sterling and Stiviano:
This sounds no different than every half-wit who read Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross and came away with, "Hey, slaves got free housing!"
But part of the reason the revolting nature of Sterling's comments hasn't gained traction in the past lies in the second half of his part of that exchange: It reads a lot like the heroic modern mythmaking of the Job Creator. Here were these poor black kids, wandering an economic wilderness until a wise man from the investor class had the wit to monetize their skills and allow them to buy goods and services. Donald Sterling sounds like every other rich creep who assumes that the only engine of growth is his being interested in stuff. In short, he sounds like a lot of other owners.
Which explains why you haven't heard a lot of official outrage about Donald Sterling in the past. The NBA commissioner works for ownership, and ownership has no interest in drawing attention to whether NBA owners can be rich, repugnant creeps. As the Star-Ledger's Dave D'Alessandro points out, there are already plenty of them, and those are the ones who are just stupid enough to be obvious about it. Creating popular acclaim for taking down a rich creep who made his money in a predatory way only generates precedent and momentum for it to someday happen to them.
As for the media's missed opportunity to take up an anti-Sterling crusade earlier, that mistake and its reasons remain a mixed bag. ESPN, to their credit, ran a devastating 5,000-word profile on Sterling by Peter Keating in their magazine back in 2009, then put it online. But the majority of Americans don't go in for longform journalism. ESPN could have banged away at the story on the air, but they and ABC are broadcast partners with the NBA. Even with the noblest of intentions, serving the dual masters of presenting NBA product and investigating and reporting on it inevitably compromises one or the other.
Besides, it's not as if ESPN's failure to refer to Donald Sterling during every broadcast as "the racist, misogynist, slumlord Donald Sterling" obstructed anyone else from doing so. This website has criticized Sterling, but we could have run a sidebar counter on every page from day one titled, "Days that Racist, Misogynist Slumlord Donald Sterling Has Been An NBA Owner: Day __" without consequence. (What would he have done? Sued us for definition of character?) But we didn't, and neither did anyone else.
Perversely, everyone probably dropped the ball on Donald Sterling for the same reasons that everyone can now fearlessly castigate him: race. There are so many readers and fans who feel exhausted by these topics, who don't want politics or social agitation interrupting their recreation. Any coverage of events like these goes through a kind of unofficial matrix of potential reader interest/disinterest, story significance and negative/positive impacts. Sterling likely coasted on a slick combination of fellow owners' silence, a lack of outspoken players, and media seeing the specter of comments sections exploding with, "This is a non-story! You didn't report on Obama's uncle getting a DUI because of reverse racism!" and figuring, hell, why bother.
Only Sterling couldn't help himself. And while, granted, this recording might well be illegal under California law and inadmissible in court -- and while Sterling has an unalienable right to express himself like a purulent boil -- it doesn't paper over the existing documentation of his many sins. Nor can it dispel a perfect media storm. Because this time he managed to be a creepy, misogynist racist while talking about probably the only player in basketball who comes close to being universally beloved.
And after pissing off Magic, he pissed off Jordan, an owner. Then he pissed off his own players enough that they walked to center court and ditched their practice jackets, exposing team shirts worn inside-out to hide the logo. While this might fall short of Keith Olbermann's wish for a defining, dramatic walkout moment on the level of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, that's a huge gesture in professional sports. It's even bigger in a sport where just three years ago ownership locked out players for their refusal to take a revenue cut, then large numbers of fans blamed the latter anyway, because many of them echo the attitude Sterling evinced when he said he "gives" them clothes and cars and houses -- who see every tatted arm and cornrowed head and assume some thug is getting a free ride.
Sterling probably isn't going away, at least not all the way. But he isn't going to be able to sign more checks and get another NAACP award. He can't end the issue with a passive-voiced press release lamenting the existence of the concept of people being capable of feeling upset. He singled out a star too appealing and too famous to ignore and, in the process, ended the lack of ownership and media scrutiny that enabled him for so long. He is an unreconstructed bigot happy to remain that way, and he finally gave enough of the right people enough reason to tear the rest of him down.