The Ticketmassa and fall of the Clipperland Plantation
Injecting the history and imagery of the American slave trade into any racial debate is certain to to stoke certain passions, emotions and anger. The word “slavery” itself is often bandied about to put an exclamation point on any topic — even if the links may be tenuous, construed more of hyperbole and emotion than fact and circumstance.
Yet, in the case of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his recorded racist ramblings, the slavery invocations are warranted and the symbolism is undeniable. After all, one of the hardest things for Clippers players and most African-Americans to digest was Sterling’s sincere, yet casually paternalistic, Antebellum Era description of his players, essentially as property — his property, for whom he claimed, “I give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”
In his eyes, these were Sterling’s servants, his giant mandingo laborers that ran and jumped and entertained tens of thousands of paying spectators, enhancing his personal fortune, while he sat courtside, presiding over the entire spectacle like a linen suit-clad plantation owner, verbally abusing his property in whatever manner he so chose.
“He would literally cuss at me, during the games,” said former Clippers point guard Baron Davis, who claims Sterling’s harassment contributed to his drop in production on the court. “Sterling called me a bastard. He referred to me as the devil and crazy,” Davis said. “If he wasn’t around I’d be in a great mood. But if he walked in, I would get the worst anxiety. I couldn’t find a way to function with this man sitting here, knowing he hates me.”
Davis was neither the first nor last to attest to Sterling’s brutish harassment of his employees.
When former Clippers general manager and NBA legend Elgin Baylor filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the team in 2009, his testimony revealed Sterling’s “pervasive and on-going racist attitude” toward his Black employees. Employees such as star power forward Danny Manning, whose contract Sterling described as “offering a lot of money for a poor Black kid.”
According to Baylor, Sterling ideally and inexplicably wanted the Clippers roster and staff to be comprised of “Poor Black boys from the South and a white head coach.”
Considering 26 is the average NBA player age, Sterling’s flippant usage of the term “boys” to describe his adult, Black male players is hardly racially coded language for a man who went so far as to turn a work environment into a modern-day slave auction block of sorts.
Baylor says Sterling would routinely bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, “Look at those beautiful Black bodies” — a practice Sterling continued to engage in even after Baylor raised player complaints.
And this is how Sterling treated the employees to whom he paid millions of dollars annually. The stories of how he treated those who attempted to pay him money to live in one of his many Southland properties are even more heinous. Yet, all of the incidents speak to a particular world view, segregated along color lines, separate and very much unequal.
NEW CLIPPERS, OLD STERLING
Throughout the years, the allegations against Sterling have risen up, hung around in the L.A. air and eventually faded away like morning coastal haze.
But these are the new Clippers. New, in that they have a coach with hall of fame credentials, two of the NBA’s most talented and heavily marketed players, and an arena that now hosts consecutive sellout crowds of more than 19,000. After decades of laughable, bottom-feeding futility, the new Clippers seem to have all of the pieces to possibly win their first championship.
What’s not new, as revealed by the secret recordings, is Sterling and the master-slave context through which he views the world and his players.
The definition of the “post-racial” generation, most of the current Clippers players were born in the mid-’80s and in elementary school when the LA Riots, Rodney King verdicts, and OJ thrust race this prominently into the mainstream.
Sure, there was the Trayvon Martin case in 2013, but those were contentious waters the players only had to wade into if they so chose.
When audio was released of their employer characterizing them as his property and stating he doesn’t want anyone who looks like them to attend the games, there was no wading. The backlash over the recordings hit Clipperland like a tsunami, leaving players and coaches scrambling for cover and answers.
Prior to the fourth game of their playoff series, Clippers players opted to protest the Sterling tapes by collectively tossing their warm up jerseys on the floor and wearing their Clippers logo-clad shooting shirts inside out. And lest we forget their black protest socks.
While criticism from the more militant among us scoffed at the gesture, by the standard (or lack thereof) set by basketball legends and company men Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson — who never voiced one controversial, protest-oriented, politically-, racially-, or principle-motivated statement in 20-plus years in the league — the wearing of black protest socks was the NBA equivalent of standing atop a podium in Estadio Olímpico with black gloved fists raised high into the air.
However, the symbolic gestures and words of condemnation still don’t change the fundamental fact that Sterling remains the same owner-cum-bigot that he was in the weeks and years prior to the revelation of the secret recordings.
Outrage is easy. The facts are hard. The options are few and unlikely — or are they?
In “Django Unchained,” a 2013 spaghetti western revenge flick, freed slave Django goes on a violent quest to save his wife that ultimately leads him to destroy the Candieland Plantation where she is being held captive.
Dismantling the Clipperland Plantation might not be as swift or dramatic as Django’s dynamite-oriented solution, but socially it could be just as explosive. That effort, however, will require the combined efforts of members of a public with often short memories and a lack of temperament to engage in an extensive, inconvenient racial battle.
In the three days between the release of the recordings of Sterling’s racist rant and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s unprecedented disciplinary response, public outrage poured in from all quarters like Lob City alley-oops, mostly in the form of sound bytes and 140-character commentaries.
But that’s the easy part.
After all, you don’t exactly need to be a civil rights icon to condemn the racist vitriol of an 80-year-old slumlord with a paper trail of racial discrimination allegations longer than the multicultural line of fans waiting to buy “We Are One” Clippers t-shirts.
Sponsors withdrew association with the team.
Magic Johnson staged a 3-day Clippers boycott.
LeBron James issued a disapproving tweet.
The L.A. chapter of the NAACP rescinded what would have been Sterling’s second lifetime achievement award issued by the organization — a dishonor that also led to the resignation of the chapter president.
Even President Obama took time from leading the free world to express his disapproval from a lectern in Malaysia.
Rallying the masses, who are becoming less outraged by the day, to send Sterling a more meaningful message is a task that became much more difficult and unlikely after Silver issued his lifetime ban. Within hours, former athletes, pundits and politicians all rushed to the nearest open microphone to heap praise on the commish for taking such swift, decisive action to save the NBA, or as LeBron calls it, “our beautiful and powerful league!!”
By staving off what reports contend was the very real possibility of players from both the Clippers and Golden State Warriors sitting out the nationally televised playoff game in protest, Silver helped the NBA avert the most public of embarrassments. Protests outside Staples Center were called off or watered down, along with reported fan boycotts. Players put away their black socks and turned their shooting jerseys logo-side out. Clippers coach Doc Rivers pronounced, “We can all move forward.”
And with that, a large swath of the formerly outraged public was reassured that their three-day national nightmare was over and they could all return to enjoying and celebrating Clippers hoops once again.
And return they did, in droves. The two Clippers home games since the tapes were released have both been nationally televised sellouts.
Presuming they were dismayed by Sterling’s comments, those same fans could opt to boycott Clippers games until the team is sold. In theory, a mass fan boycott would force the NBA to expedite the sale of the team to avoid the public shame of playoff games contested in front of empty seats, and drastically impact Sterling’s final money grab by helping to devalue the Clippers brand.
INEVITABLE AND UNACCEPTABLE
Cynics would say today’s fans and athletes lack the collective stomach for any long-term, meaningful protest. Realists see not only the tough road ahead, but accept the inevitable, disheartening fact that David Sterling may suffer countless slings and arrows, but will walk away from this scandal with an outrageous fortune.
While Silver, during his teachable moment, made clear his commitment to force Sterling to sell the team, it is by no means a certainty. Sterling has made a living and a fortune deftly maneuvering around courtrooms, lawsuits, and accusations — so it’s no 360-reverse slam dunk that he will go quietly into the night.
Until the new Clippers owner is standing at a press conference with Silver, Sterling still owns the team and, more importantly, still collects his share of profits. Profits that now, thanks to the perfect storm of controversy, media spotlight, spectacle, race, public interest, celebrity, entertainment, and sleaze will balloon to unprecedented heights — by Clippers standards at least.
According to Forbes, in 2013 the Clippers, financially one of the NBA’s worst performing franchises, still generated $128 million in revenue and earned a profit of $15 million. In contrast, the Lakers, who share Staples Center with the Clippers, are the the NBA’s second most profitable franchise, generating $295 million in revenue and $66 million in profit in 2013.
Sports franchises are a finite luxury investment reserved exclusively for the ultra-rich. A celebrity-laden bidding war for a relatively rare, yet highly sought commodity will only drive the final sale price higher. Early estimates suggest the team could sell for anywhere between $600 million to $1 billion.
Factored into those estimates are the Clippers’ two superstar players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, whose basketball skills have put the team on its current winning path, and whose national advertising campaigns have raised the cachet of the long languishing franchise. Moving deeper into the playoffs with these two stars at the helm means more home games, more sellout crowds paying top-dollar for playoff tickets, more merchandise sales, more television exposure, and a raising of the overall Clippers’ profile.
With record crowds and profits still flowing in, Sterling has no incentive to jump ship. His numerous housing, employment and sexual discrimination cases suggest he is not one to just acknowledge his transgressions and move on. However, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is representing players union in discussions with the NBA, hopes Sterling will do just that.
“I think everyone is anticipating there will be a legal fight,” Johnson said. “However, I would like [Sterling] to rethink that position and apologize, embrace the sanctions and spend the rest of his life proving he’s not a racist.”
If Sterling fights the forced sale of the team and is still the owner at the beginning of the 2015 season, the same Clippers players derided for their protest socks and inside-out jerseys will be best poised to bring down Clipperland. After all, the league promised players and coaches that along with his lifetime ban Sterling would be forced to sell the team. It was that last part about selling the team that led players to return to the court. Silver and the NBA have until October to force a sale of the Clippers and the clock started last week.
“Players feel very confident in owners to make the right decision not just for owners, but for owners, players, and the fans,” Johnson said. “Owners will put the Clippers in a position where Mr. Sterling will have to sell the team.”
If Sterling remains owner at the start of the new season, it is very likely players could simply refuse to play for the organization, citing the hostile work environment the Sterling controversy has caused.
Despite the Silver ruling, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jarrett Jack is advocating a league-wide boycott if the Clippers have not been sold by the start of the new season.
“I was happy with what commissioner Silver did but this is bigger than a league issue, it’s a social issue,” Jack said. “The thing I would propose is that nobody plays another game for the Clippers as long as that man is in control period, point blank. And we don’t play another game until that man is removed.
“It’s not a Clipper issue, it’s a league issue and we should all take a stance on it,” Jack said. “If this man is still in control we shouldn’t play another game or another practice or anything until he relinquishes control.”
The NBA certainly won’t welcome the public relations hit of forcing disrespected and disgruntled Black players to play for the same owner who views them as chattel in high-tops. But a league-wide boycott could prove just as ugly.
If Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and others are allowed to become free agents and play for other teams, the Clippers plummet right back to the NBA basement, minus the superstar-caliber players that currently make the team a draw for new ownership and TV networks looking to broadcast Clippers games.
Under that set of circumstances, the team value may dip into small market, not-a-contender rates, such as the $550 million the Milwaukee Bucks sold for earlier this year. It also means a much tougher rebuilding and re-branding effort for new owners.
Aubrey Stone, who heads the California Black Chamber of Commerce, says the opportunity to bring in new leadership should allow the NBA and other leagues to correct the process that allowed Sterling to take control of the team in the first place. Stone said the Sterling affair speaks to a “more systemic situation that still exists and that is how people view African-Americans.”
“Maybe there should be a more thorough screening process for someone who wants to buy a team to make sure that they are not a Klansman hiding their robe,” Stone said. “I think this does create an opportunity for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball to take a step back and reflect on the economic impact and really look at it holistically and say maybe we’re doing something wrong, we’re not sending the right message.”
Even with that, despite being persona non grata in NBA circles, Sterling stands on the brink of one of, if not the greatest paydays a repeat offender racist has ever encountered. Sadly, it’s going to happen. Sterling is going to the bank. The only question is how many zeroes will be on the deposit slip.
And thus the best we can realistically hope for is some hybrid fan and player protest that knocks several hundred million dollars of worth from the Clippers’ closeout sale price tag. It’s hardly Django’s nitroglycerin-sparked finale that sent shards of the Candieland big house scattered across cotton fields in the Mississippi night. But alas, Clipperland will be no more.