Monday, April 28, 2014

Will Donald Sterling Spark a Movement?

Social injustice has an amazing capacity to persist until, under the right conditions, a spark ignites the movement that brings a long overdue change. But change is hard, and a great many sparks can burn to no avail.  As of this writing, Donald Sterling is a spark that has not yet ignited a movement.

Within the next week, we should know if his flaming bigotry will catalyze another step toward race equality in professional sports, or if it will burn brightly in the national media for a short period and be snuffed out without leaving a mark.

Sterling, (a.k.a "the worst owner of a professional American sports franchise"), spouted a tirade of racially charged comments in a recent recorded conversation, and those comments were leaked to the press yesterday.  In the ensuing 24 hours, athletes, race-relations experts, and Heads of State have all weighed in to voice their distaste for Sterling and to share opinions about how the world should react.

A lot of commentary has focused on how the current players on Sterling's team, most of whom are African-American, should respond as they make their way through the play-off series at hand.  Many other comments have focused on how the fans, who contribute to Sterling's riches when they attend Clippers games, should respond. I don't think either of these groups are broad enough to affect any real change.

The financial structure of the NBA ensures that Sterling will profit as long as the league profits.  Whether or not the Clippers players perform well (or at all) is practically immaterial to Sterling's financial results.  After all, he bought the franchise for about $15 million and it's now estimated to be worth anywhere from $600 million to $1.2 billion.  One should note, the team has stunk ever since he bought it, but financially it's a gold mine.  Even if fans boycotted the Staple Center where the Clippers play, Sterling would enjoy his share of league-wide gate and sponsorship revenues.  

It's not up to the Clippers players or the Clippers fans to affect change here.  It's up to the players on all other 30 NBA teams to unite and deliver a message to all their fans.  And it's up to those fans who fill the seats in all 30 arenas, and who drive the TV ratings (and advertising revenue), to withhold economic support of the league. It's also up to the corporate sponsors of all 30 teams to deliver an economic message (some are already stepping back).

If league revenues can be constrained by fan reaction, then the other 29 owners will interpret and enforce the NBA by-laws in a manner that removes Sterling from his current ownership position.  The law can't do it; he doesn't appear to have broken any laws.  The NBA Commissioner can't do it, he merely takes orders from the owners.  But the other owners could do it, and probably will, if motivated financially.

Will they or won't they? That depends on how the fans react, which may be greatly influenced by a well-crafted and uniformly delivered message from the players.  

Maybe Sterling will be just another innocuous spark in the long history of racial inequity in America.  But I'll be watching to see if this isn't the start of another change for the better. 

No comments:

Post a Comment