By Mike Piellucci
A little more than a week after the NBA ousted its most odious owner, the positive feelings generated by Donald Sterling's lifetime ban show no signs of abating. Maybe those residual good vibes are the reason why everyone involved seems so eager to give a free pass to Sterling's estranged wife, Rochelle, despite evidence that calls into question whether she is even slightly less racist than her husband.
Indeed, amid the considerable fallout from Donald Sterling's exile is the apparent casting of Shelly Sterling as a martyr. Her words -- backing Adam Silver's plan to appoint a new CEO -- and her presence -- in the stands, playing the white knight swathed in black -- have been framed with a pathos typically reserved for prisoners of war, as if no one could possibly have been more tormented by the monster than the Bride of Frankenstein.
To wit, here's Doc Rivers, speaking to Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears: "It's a tough one for Shelly, really … She didn't do anything wrong, either. You have compassion for her. I kept hearing about the girlfriend. I kept thinking, 'Shelly is the wife.' You know what I mean? I talked to her [on Tuesday], and she has been through as much as anyone as well."
And here's former Clippers guard Ron Harper, to the New York Post: "The only bad part is, I know how much his wife loves the team, and mostly I feel sad for her."
This would be all well and good, were Shelly Sterling actually the guiltless victim she is presumed to be. She isn't.
Shelly Sterling was, in fact, a co-defendant with husband Donald in two housing discrimination lawsuits, and each one is flush with testimony that paints a disturbing picture of her own views on race. There is also the time she impersonated a health inspector to gain entry illegally into the homes of tenants -- an incident documented on newly released video.
Shelly Sterling's transgressions have been hiding in plain sight for years, just like her husband's, yet her role continues to be glossed over and ignored. We've failed to weigh her alleged guilt alongside her alleged outrage over his prejudices, in our collective zeal to make Donald Sterling himself answer -- deservedly -- for decades of activity that qualify him not only as a bona fide racist, but also a slumlord. That latter charge is by far the more serious one, as Bomani Jones astutely pointed out, but it's been only a tiny gust in the howling, fuming vortex about Sterling's worldviews.
Housing discrimination carries with it dire ramifications, the ultimate manifestation of Donald Sterling's demented, inner workings: Bigotry, meet avarice. By all rights, these offenses are really what should have brought him down, not a TMZ exclusive, and Shelly Sterling seems to have played some part in them. It's possible the general public is simply unaware of the scope of the problem, or perhaps they just don't care enough to investigate. The very foundation of housing discrimination is setting aside entire demographics as "others," sealing their problems safely away from the broader public view.
The more likely reason that part of the story has been bypassed, however, is because acknowledging it would complicate an otherwise simple narrative. Parsing legal documents and personal testimony to determine the degree to which Sterling actively conspired against his tenants, and to what impact, requires exponentially more engagement than clicking on a link cued up to a specific segment of dialogue. Forming an opinion of a lawsuit demands considerably more critical thinking than the unassailable, unequivocal and obvious response prompted by the tape: Donald Sterling is a racist, and we should be outraged.
Once we arrive at that conclusion, the nuances become peripheral, the edges blurred by rage, as we fixate on and bellow about this one snippet of audio, until the goal -- Sterling being severed from his basketball team -- is realized. When that outcome arrives, and the racist is humiliated, why shouldn't we celebrate? Why should we dilute it by making the story more complicated? Stick to the most basic narrative, and success is achieved.
But Donald Sterling is still a slumlord, whether or not he still owns an NBA team, and when we face up to the whole story, we're confronted by the fact that very little actually has been accomplished. It is far more comforting to wrap ourselves in the resonance of our voices than the cold recognition of our limitations.
It's no different when considering his wife, and so she apparently is getting away with a free pass. "Shelly Sterling: Possibly Outraged But Probably Complicit Spouse" reads a lot muddier than "Shelly Sterling: Cheated-On, Not-Racist Wife." We don't like muddy, so we oversimplify. Taking her to task would mean confronting the more serious sins of housing discrimination. That's hardly a satisfying result, so we repurpose her as an avatar of survivor's guilt instead.
Maybe Shelly Sterling really is a much better human being than her husband, but that hardly qualifies her as virtuous or praiseworthy. An accomplice in housing discrimination doesn't deserve to be canonized on national television -- or trotted out with cameras tailing her every move, the way they did before Saturday's Game 7 between the Clippers and Warriors, as if her decision to parade through the Staples Center and plop down in courtside seats was some kind of principled stand.
It's time for us to stop treating her like a victim in all of this, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us feel.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas, based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.