Flashpoints over race in America — often caused by stupid comments from politicians, athletes and entertainment celebrities — usually last a few days and then quickly dissipate.
There’s often a call for another national discussion, which basically takes place in the media, and we return to business as usual without any significant change in attitude, public policy or corporate conduct.
But the case of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose publicized racist comments caused a national firestorm, seems to be having much more fallout with perhaps a more lasting impact.
National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, who had only been on the job three months, lowered the hammer on Sterling by banning him for life from the NBA, issuing a $2.5 million fine and moving to force Sterling to sell his team.
The swift, tough sanctions were heralded by people around the country, including many current and former players.
Many Clippers sponsors had already dropped their support of the team, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would urge fans to boycott the team if Sterling fights to hold on to his ownership.
Another casualty has been the NAACP, the venerable civil-rights organization, whose L.A. chapter was planning to give Sterling its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, for the second time. The group rescinded that action, but the chapter’s president felt compelled to resign over the flap.
People were shocked that the NAACP would ever have given such an award to a person who had a long history of racism. But the group, like many nonprofits, often gives awards to people who give it money.
Then there are the NBA players who, by the way, were silent when basketball all-star and Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for age and racial discrimination. Former player Chris Webber said NBA athletes owe Baylor an apology “because he told us this man was a racist and none of us spoke up for him.”
But as the players celebrate Silver’s punishment of Sterling, one judge in Tarrant County thinks they may come to regret the harsh treatment of the Clippers owner.
Judge Daryl R. Coffey of County Criminal Court No. 8 studied labor law in college, has been involved in collective bargaining agreements and has represented pro athletes.
When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban first commented on the Sterling matter, he was very cautious, calling it a “slippery slope,” a reaction I thought was rather lame from one who has been known to be bombastic.
But Coffey used the same phrase while suggesting that in the next collective bargaining agreement and in individual contracts owners will insist on much stricter morals and values clauses for athletes, making it easier to get rid of a player they don’t want.
For the athlete who is a “bust” (less valuable than the team thought when he was signed), Coffey said an owner will be able to cut him when he says something stupid, “not just about race; about anything.”
He noted the number of athletes who are involved in domestic disputes, who have drug and alcohol problems and who get arrested but are never convicted. The precedent now set with this owner, Coffey said, means “you’ll be able to cut them if they do anything considered detrimental to the sport.”
Coffey added, “If you can take a multimillion-dollar franchise from someone, you definitely will be able to cut a few million-dollar players.”
He’s probably right.
But Silver’s actions in this case sent a powerful message, not only to the NBA and the world of sports, but to all of America.
It won’t be long before we return to business as usual. That is, until the next racial flashpoint.