Antiquated racist attitudes linger in professional sports

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is the latest ignorant white guy to find himself in hot water for waxing poetic on race relations. Sterling was caught on tape allegedly taking his girlfriend to task for bringing black people as guests of hers to Clippers games, including NBA legend Magic Johnson and current MLB star Matt Kemp. Many have questioned how someone with such backward, ignorant views on race could own an NBA team that relies on black athletes to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Sterling’s racism makes perfect sense within the twisted power structure that has always existed between whites and the African-Americans that financially benefit them.

Just before the outset of the Civil War, the total value of slaves in the United States was $3 billion – around $75 billion in today’s money. Wealthy Southerners who made a killing in the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries did so upon the backs of slave labor.

The domestic and international market invested heavily in industries propped up by slavery, and for good reason – slave labor had a 13 percent return on investment, against the 6-8 percent return for railroad bonds at the time. The same institution that designated black workers as property allowed those who owned them to reap immense revenues off of their work.

This power dynamic is key to understanding how Sterling’s racism cannot only exist, but flourish. To Sterling, whose decades-long career in racism is reflected in court documents and anecdotal evidence, the athletes that inflated his basketball team’s value to $575 million are not people, but rather conduits for his own profits.

As Sterling put it, “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?” Just as slavery apologists perpetuated the myth that blacks were content under slavery, Sterling sees himself as a savior of these athletes – whose possessions, I’d argue, are entirely the results of their athletic merit rather than some crusty, old white guy’s generosity.

Professional sports are a natural manifestation of this twisted power dynamic. Athletes, despite their generous compensation, are actually undervalued given the revenue they bring in for team owners.

Writing in Deadspin, Tim Marchman said, “That a player makes millions doesn’t make it any less true that he’s making a fraction of what he’s worth, or that he’s being essentially stolen from by a system designed to divert wealth from those who create it to those who already have it.”

All the handwringing going on by those asking how such intolerance could exist in a league that affords African-Americans such great opportunities is misplaced. Not to downplay the ugliness of Sterling’s racism, but his pathology is not at all unique or original. Asking where his racism comes from ignores the history of persecution of African-Americans in this country that spans four centuries.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took decisive action on Tuesday April 29, issuing Sterling the maximum ban possible of $2.5 million and banning him from the league for life. The fine is pocket change for Sterling, whose worth sits just below $2 billion. The lifetime ban, however, is an affirmative statement that wretched intolerance will not be brushed aside.

Unfortunately, this story is far from over and Sterling will likely fight tooth-and-nail to retain control over his team. One can only hope that the inexorable march of time extinguishes the social constructs that facilitate Sterling’s prejudices.