The unfortunate moss
As you might've heard, I've been making a vague attempt to busy myself with vacation at its fullest, which is why my posts have reeked of casual these last two weeks. But when a man gets an email from Golden State of Mind announcing an all-bloggers-on-deck call to arms about L'Affaire du Sterling, it's on. I tried to go at this the day it hit, but, well, I didn't feel like taking the time to give it my all. Now I'm worrying about sneaking my gallons of hair gel past security, so it seems like the moment is nigh.
The always-excellent Bomani Jones fired the shot most of us had been wondered toward: namely, why doesn't the media count its uproar over this one? I could not be in more agreement with his piece, even if he didn't answer an email I wrote him approximately one year ago to the day. To me, though, the more verbally enriching den of nettles is the implications of this for the players on the newly-buoyant Clip Joint. As I remember, it was a frank one-on-one between Odom and Sterling that led to Lamar's being allowed to move on to Miami; at very least, this seemed at the time to indicate some degree of sympathy for the player's situation, or at least his humanity. Not trying to claim that The Donald is some sort of player's owner, but this did strike me as an uncessarily decent gesture—and certainly one at odds with any attempt to cast Sterling as Schott's Revenge.
Yet you can't help but dwell a minute on the position this puts Brand, Cassell, Mobley, Maggette, and the rest of the African-American Clippers in. Here's an organization that has suddenly sprung to life, largely through the willingness of crap owner to finally heed the cause of winning. Mark Cuban notoriously observed that a losing baseball team was a more profitable business venture than a winning win; even if the situaton is slightly different for basketball, Sterling clearly for years felt that cheapskating by was the optimal way to manage a franchise. Most people point to this season as when his internal winds began to shift, but I'll insist it was that sit-down with Odom. Maybe he realized that it did no one no good to lock up talent who wanted to move on, or maybe Lamar actually impressed upon him the emotional toll of life in Clipperdom and/or the man behind the athlete. In either case, Sterling seemed to understand that there was more to the NBA than the bottom line.
Now, I recognize that NBA players are not prospective tenants, and it's perfectly possible that one could expand his understanding of major league sports without any change in his societal views. But presumably this incarnation of the Clippers views their owner in a decidedly different light. He's no longer the enemy in their quest for respect around the Association. Instead, he's an asset, an ally, a figure upstairs who is willing to do what it takes to win. And in this sense, he's on their side. Or at least was.
This is not only a PR disaster. In a way few things could, it really forces these guys to choose between being Clippers and being African-Americans. Sterling's housing practices in no way affect his attitude toward his team, apparently; as stated earlier, if anything one could read this recent bout of competence as an increased sensitivity toward his players' situations. But just when his relationship with his team qua owner was defrosting, along comes a revelation sure to sour some of his employees toward him. If Sterling had a positive track record, perhaps it would be possible to withhold judgment. But given his history of shit conduct, it's hard to not assume the worse. That this is seeing the light of day as the team moves in the right direction once and for all lays bare the distinction between the cause of black NBA'ers and a plea for worldwide racial equality.
FreeDarko spends an endless amount of time attempting to racialize and politicize the game. We rarely, if ever, expect players to act in accordance with the imperatives we see all around the Association. Jermaine O'Neal is one of the few stars who ever speaks up in any definite way; yes, there was the dress code fiasco, but a lot of that was just posturing. Although I'm as big a fan of Artest and Stephen Jackson as the next man, I'm not about to take two week's worth of cliche-spouting as any real awareness of the league's deeper connotations. The age limit prompted far more meaningful, less contrived comments, as well as one of the all-time epic Jim Brown interventions. What's happening on the other side of the Staples Center tracks would seem to be an obvious instance in which the NBA could make a difference; just as their Katrina charity put that of the more "American" leagues to shame, the totally YGB Association is in the ideal position to make an issue of Sterling. And I can't help but suspect that those who have heard about it have some feelings on the subject.
Unfortunately, those on the Clippers simply don't have this luxury, and it's not clear they would want it. Not to get all DuBoisian, but as professional athletes they are in a borderline perfect situation. As African-Americans, however, they're suddenly affiliated with something rank and sinister. Their fans are not particularly inclined to rock the boat these days, since most sports fans are aware of athletes, not socio-culturally constituted public figures. When things are going well, no one wants to talk about race, especially if it can be kept out of the basketball conversation entirely. And in this case, it would actively fly in the face of Sterling's—and his team's—basketball trajectory. For Brand or Magette, to name the two longest-tenured Clips, to say something here would be a profoundly unpopular decision with any number of parties; if anyone else in the league were to speak out, it practically forces them to have an opinion, if not an authoritative one. While I like to imagine that this scenario would still present some clear-cut right and wrong, I'm not sure it's fair for anyone else to hold them accountable. You can wish high-profile athletes would lead the way more often, but telling them to do so often deconstructs the reasons we look to them in the first place.