Donald Sterling is not interesting. The banned and perhaps soon to be ousted owner of the Los Angeles Clippers is a racist plutocrat as a matter of public record, which makes him a classic American success story: a perfect homage to the colonization and slavery on which so much American success is built. History overflows with Donald Sterling analogues of every scale, broken people who spread viruses fast through any society and claim ownership on anything they can. What does interest me is the public and the employees turning against these people.
When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban referred to Sterling's possible ouster as a "slippery slope," he was speaking of a plutocrat's only real fear: public accountability. The NBA is an unregulated monopoly run by 30 ultra-rich owners who operate with their actions largely shielded from any outside consequences. The owners are the ones who price gouge, demand outrageous tax subsidies on specious grounds and, somehow, expect public gratitude for having rigged another system in their favor. Sterling was never held accountable to any extent by the NBA because the NBA is run by the owners, and money doesn't turn on money until it absolutely has to.
The means that upset the insular politics of the ownership class were the collective outrage of the public and the NBA's most visible employees. The timing of the outrage is confounding given the decades-long documentation of Sterling's decayed humanity, but flash points are typically long overdue. What can be said with certainty is that solidarity between enough of the public and enough of the players can beat the system engineered by owners to evade accountability outside their small circle.
For all the dimly oblivious GroupThinkPieces out there on the toxicity of social media outrage and hashtag activism, it turns out that in a country where 62 percent of all wealth belongs to the top five percent, collective outrage makes a decent vehicle for forcing owners to address the collective's concerns. It was outrage that compelled so much of the public to call for Sterling's removal and it was outrage that had players ready to execute an audacious walkout unprecedented in our time. What remains to be seen is how exactly the power of outrage will play out going forward.
There is, unfortunately, a broad impulse coming from the top to dismiss outrage from the masses and brand it all just another case of the silly peons blowing off steam. Such instances are plentiful in any history of activist movements and, sometimes, they end with the powerful people losing. Legal experts have already anticipated the next scenario that could trigger an outrage.
Imagine a billionaire octogenarian racist sex freak with nothing to lose going on the record in pretrial discovery against the NBA and unloading every bit of dirt he can on the league and his fellow owners. That's what Sterling's hyper-litigious reputation could yield. This is part of the calculation that compels owners to avoid crossing each other on these terms -- the Bible was right about the connection between wealth and morality, after all. However, there is no need to wait out that hypothetical.
Rich DeVos owns the Orlando Magic, cofounded the cultish pyramid scheme known as Amway, has given millions to anti-gay marriage groups, served on Ronald Reagan's infamously dispassionate HIV/AIDS commission, publicly accuses the gay community of "asking for favors" in its fight for equal rights and considers his wealth a demonstration of God's will. Oklahoma City Thunder stakeholders Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward made their fortune running an ethically shady and ecologically destructive fracking empire and made a $1.1 million donation to Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a group that argues gay couples use marriage to further their political agenda and degrade the institution. Given that the NBA already has an out gay player and will have more in the future, this seems like a bit of a problem and one that the power of outrage could address.
However, if the outrage that forced Sterling's banishment ends up an isolated event, it amounts to society banding together to point out The Real Racist, patting itself on the back and going on as if society is not defined by inequality. Consider that Sterling's greatest documented crime remains his history of housing discrimination -- an abominable practice that forces people of color into the most disadvantaged, underserved and dangerous neighborhoods -- and it's not what got him banned.
Sterling's mistake was being gauche about his bigotry in a way that imperiled the NBA's money-making, fun for the whole family brand. Going forward, the owners will be much more careful about maintaining the illusion of Kindly Hoarding Dragon. It's a prop bet for them, one that hinges on the outrage dying before the collective realizes that there is nothing right about a system that hands over sports to plutocrats for the purpose of them holding it all hostage for a regular ransom that keeps going up in price.
Putting pressure on the owners to run out the documented bigots among them won't radically alter society, but collective outrage both sets the table for further action and sends a needed reminder to those who really run a capitalist society. The further action is what the ownership class always bets against. I hope they lose that bet.