Should Bigotry Get You Kicked Out Of The NBA?

There has been widespread outrage to racist comments allegedly made by L.A. Clippers' owner Donald Sterling. Host Michel Martin learns more from sports columnists William Rhoden and Christine Brennan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start the program today by talking about something you're probably already talking about - alleged remarks from Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling. A gossip website and program called TMZ aired about 15 minutes of audio tape where Mr. Sterling scolds a female companion about online photos she posted.

Namely, he takes issue with her for quote-unquote, "associating with black people." Ironically, the woman who's identified as V. Stiviano herself identifies as biracial - Mexican-American and African-American. So here's a clip of Mr. Sterling.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO TAPE)

DONALD STERLING: I love minorities...

V. STIVIANO: Look at all this negativity coming from...

STERLING: There's no negativity. I love everybody. I'm just saying in your lousy [bleep] Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with - walking with black people.

MARTIN: As most people probably know, the majority of players in the National Basketball Association are black, including Mr. Sterling's team, the Clippers, who expressed their disapproval of the alleged comments by wearing their warm-up jerseys inside-out.

Well, we'd like to find out more about what this means not just for the players, but also the league and Mr. Sterling and other conversations that have been taking place lately around race. We're going to start with the sports world, and we have two distinguished columnists with us. William Rhoden, sports columnist with The New York Times, is with us. Mr. Rhoden, thanks for joining us once again.

WILLIAM RHODEN: Thank you so much. How're you doing, Michel?

MARTIN: Great. And Christine Brennan is also with us, sports columnist with USA Today. Christine, thank you so much for joining us once again.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Michel, my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: And let me start by saying alleged comments once again because it occurred to me, in the spirit of fairness - you know, I'm thinking about Shirley Sherrod, for example - the agriculture department employee who was falsely portrayed as a racist by an ideologue who edited and then posted her remarks.

I think it's important to say that this matter is still being investigated. But Bill Rhoden, you're the author of a number of books, most notably "Forty Million Dollar Slave: The Rise, Fall, And Redemption Of The Black Athlete." And I'd like to ask you if Mr. Sterling has a reputation in matters of race.

RHODEN: Yeah, yeah, he's got a poor track record, which - yeah - you mentioned Shirley Shirrod. And, you know, Sterling doesn't get the benefit of the doubt because of a couple of things that have happened in the past - you know, he settled out of a suit. you know, there was a lawsuit.

He was accused of not renting to Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans. Then there was the Elgin Baylor suit where, you know, his treatment of Elgin even before - the suit was eventually thrown out, dismissed - but just the treatment of Elgin was just so publicly humiliating.

MARTIN: He was a manager with the association. He was an executive in the Clippers's organization.

RHODEN: He was a - yeah, he was a GM. He was - yeah. So yeah, so the point is that he's got a track record that does not - regarding African-Americans - that does not allow him to get the benefit of the doubt. But you're absolutely correct. We still have to couch this in language that - in other words, we're still trying to authenticate the voice and those kinds of things.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you, though, Mr. Rhoden. And, Christine, I haven't forgotten about you. But, Mr. Rhoden, let me start with you. Do you think Mr. Sterling's thoughts are unique to him, or are they things that one has heard in the league?

RHODEN: Well, that's a great question. And of course, you know, you can't speculate. I mean, he was just stupid enough to get caught. I mean, I look at this as him throwing a good old-fashioned racist hanging curveball. You know, racism has become so insidious now and so under-the-radar and so multifaceted that it's rare that somebody's dumb enough to just get caught.

But, no, I mean, you know, every time I walk into a press box, Michel, and see no African-American reporters, or every time I walk into a newsroom and see no African-American editors or, like, no reporters, you know, people are saying the same things without necessarily saying it. We don't respect you.

We don't respect black people. We're not going to hire you. We don't want you around. I hear, you know, partners in law firms complain of the same thing that there's, like, one of them or maybe only a clerk. So no, I think you ask a great question. And I think it's probably one of the questions to ask is - we could jump all over Donald Sterling.

You know, he's just an 81-year-old man who's a old-school kind of bigot. But there are a lot of people who are younger, who are a lot more slicker realize that they don't - they're smart enough to not get caught.

MARTIN: Christine Brennan, you've been in a lot of these same press rooms. What's your take on this?

BRENNAN: I agree with Bill on so much of this. And Bill and I don't always agree on every issue we talk about. But we do agree on this one, Bill, and it's great. And, Michel, great to talk with you in all these years we've all worked together.

You know, I could say, actually, the same thing about women. I wish there were so many more women. Diversity is so important. And press boxes can often - often we can see one or two women, as well, Bill, as we know.

RHODEN: Right.

BRENNAN: So we all have a lot of work to do. But things are better than they were. But anyway, I think this - you know, I'm reminded of Marge Schott. Of course, she was the owner of the Cincinnati Reds in the '90s. And she was eventually drummed out of the sport, but it took a long time - this is baseball of course.

She said racist things, used the N-word, was awful in her language. One of, perhaps, the worst things she said, Marge Schott - again, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds - was that she thought Hitler started off well. Things - you know, that Hitler was good at the beginning. I mean, it was just abhor. And it took - what - five, six, seven years to get her...

RHODEN: Right.

BRENNAN: ...Out of the league because she was an owner. And they suspended her twice. And then finally others got the ownership issue resolved and got her out. But I think that's the thing that, of course, strikes me and I'm sure a lot of your listeners, Michel, is that this man is the owner of the team.

Let's say it again, right up front - or I didn't say yet. The comments are reprehensible. They're unacceptable. They are disgusting. They have no place, hopefully, in our culture much less in sports. This man should no longer be involved with an NBA team or any part of our society.

MARTIN: But let me ask you this, though, Christine. The fact is that - he - Bill mentioned the gentleman's age. OK, this isn't the first time he's owed this team. Do we believe that these are - the first time these comments have been expressed?

And if that's not the case, why did his views - well, there are two questions here. Is this the first time we believe his views rose to the level of scrutiny by the people in his peer group who presumably have access to him more than we do? That's number one. Number two, are his views expressed privately of note?

BRENNAN: Well, and of course that's the - you've hit on a key thing here, is that now we know. You know, how many times are people talking - owners, everybody, talking about things? He is 80 years old. He just turned 80 two days ago, actually, Sterling did. And we now know it because of the Internet, because of our world. We now have a window into this world, and I'm glad we do. I'm glad we found out.

But how many times has he said these things in private? Probably hundreds of times, right? And how many times are people of any age, not just 80 - we don't want to give him a pass just because of that - but I think we can - well, I don't want to say we can understand - it's within our mindset to comprehend the fact that an 80-year-old man might say these things, as despicable and reprehensible as they are. But it's really awful when a 30-year-old says those things.

But anyway, yes. I think it's good that we know. But for years, for generations, owners have been saying these things and many others as well. We - you know, we weren't born yesterday, obviously.

MARTIN: Bill Rhoden - and if you're just joining us, we're talking about LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling's, alleged comments on race that came to light over the weekend.

And the reason I mention it is that the owners where Mr. Sterling's organization has released - or rather the NBA's saying, we've heard the tape. We don't know if it's legitimate or it has been altered. We do know that the woman on the tape, who we believe released it to TMZ, is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family, alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would get even.

And Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings - and that they say it is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. And he says that he apologizes to anybody who might have been hurt by them. This is in a statement that was released by the organization.

So, Bill Rhoden, again, the question is - are comments expressed privately relevant...

RHODEN: No, well...

MARTIN: ...To his ownership of this team?

RHODEN: Well, I mean...

MARTIN: And do we believe that this is the first time he's expressed these kinds of comments to others...

RHODEN: Well, no...

MARTIN: ...And why do they - only now rising to the level?

RHODEN: Well, A, if these are in fact his comments, no, I don't think this is the first time he said it. And again, I think that - so that's the first thing. And also in terms of the privacy thing, if you're a bigot, you're a bigot, if you say it privately, if you say publicly. You know, if you're a bigot, you're a bigot. Now, you could argue certain legal things about what's private, I mean, should your spouse - whatever. But if you are a racist or a homophobe or whatever and it comes out, that's who you are. And you've got to be held accountable for it.

I think, though, as we've been - as this story has been percolating, I think the issue now is what - this is a major, major, major thing for Adam Silver. I mean, this is his first major issue as a commissioner. And so far, I mean, the president of the United States has said he's enraged. Michael Jordan, who's a great player and an owner, said he's enraged. LeBron James says he's enraged. Kobe Bryant has said he's enraged. Doc Rivers has said he doesn't know what Sterling could tell him that would convince him to come back. So clearly, this spark has now turned into this enormous forest fire, and Adam Silver had better act very quickly and very strongly and very decisively. He cannot let this thing fester.

But the second thing, Michel - and I think that, you know, we talk about the players - well, the players are under contract. I mean, you know, this isn't 1968 with Tommie Smith, and he ain't going to raise a fist on the stand. These guys are under contract. But I think the larger burden falls on fans, on spectators, the consumers. They are the ones who have to decide whether they are - continue to buy this product.

You know, in Montgomery during the bus boycott, you know, riders said, you know what? We no longer are going to buy this product because you disrespect us. And I think that if enough fans feel traduced, you know, that they will stay away. And I think that's a stretch because, you know, people tend to be addicted to the spectacle. But - I - you know what I'm saying? So anyway...

MARTIN: Let me ask Christine Brennan for a final thought here. We have about a minute and a half. Christine, we're going to actually talk about - we're going to dig into what are the ethical issues here and for whom there are ethical challenges in a few minutes with an ethics expert, Jack Marshall. But I wanted to ask Christine for a final thought from you about what do you think should happen? And I think noteworthy to a number of people is the fact that current players are speaking out about this, including former players. So some people find that to be a sea change. But what do you think should happen now, Christine Brennan?

BRENNAN: Well, I think he should - that Adam Silver, of course, the new Commissioner of the NBA, should make sure that Donald Sterling doesn't come to any more games. So suspend him. Tell him to stay away for this season and should - looking forward even, Michel, I think a substantial fine - what is substantial to a multi-zillionaire? I don't know. But it should be a lot. And then you work to get him out of the league. And as an owner, again, that's not the easiest thing to do. You don't just say goodbye. But there are ways and they need to do that. And I agree...

MARTIN: And why do they need to do that, Christine?

BRENNAN: Why do they?

MARTIN: Yeah.

BRENNAN: Because this is a man who should not be involved with the league. It's a - at many levels - it's awful. It's terrible for so many reasons, ethical reasons for our nation where we are in the 21st century. But also, as a visible owner, I mean, just as the public relations side, which is so unimportant in some ways. But the NBA has to make a huge statement now that this is unacceptable. And the only way you do that is make sure that this man somehow gets out of ownership of his team and maybe the family takes over. The family's already issued...

MARTIN: All right. We need to leave it there for now. Christine Brennan is a sports columnist with USA Today, joining us from her home office in Washington, D.C. William Rhoden is author of "Forty Million Dollar Slave: The Rise, Fall, And Redemption Of The Black Athlete," a sports columnist with the New York Times with us from the newsroom there. Thank you both so much for your time today.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

RHODEN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Please stay with us. We hope you will. We'll continue the conversation with a noted business ethicist to talk about how players, the fans and the league might respond. We hope you'll stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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