The comments were horrific: “Why are you taking pictures with minorities?” “It bothers me a lot that you want to promo…broadcast that you’re associating with black people.” “Don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.”
Donald Sterling was the deserving recipient of universal condemnation for his racism this past week after tapes of his rant were leaked to TMZ and Deadspin. The National Basketball Association acted swiftly to cut off any kind of long-term damage to the league by issuing a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine.
But the immediacy and severity with which the Association disposed of Sterling serves as a sharp contrast to how professional sports leagues — including this very same NBA — have handled transgressions of equal measure, or worse.
There’s the star NFL quarterback who was repeatedly accused of sexually assaulting multiple women and allegedly raping one in a nightclub bathroom. Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games by the league, and will make more than $11 million next season.
There’s the Major League Baseball pitcher who was charged with raping and sodomizing a 22-year-old woman after bringing her back to his apartment, drunk. Josh Lueke signed a one-year, $500,000 contract with the Tampa Bay Rays in the off-season. He pitched against the Red Sox on Tuesday.
There’s the legendary college basketball coach, who offered women the advice that “if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.’’ Bob Knight would continue coaching men’s basketball at Indiana for a further 12 years, then seven more at Texas Tech before landing a lucrative job as a basketball analyst for ESPN.
And there’s the NBA icon who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Colorado. Kobe Bryant’s legal team then went to work discrediting his accuser in court, before ultimately settling a civil case for an undisclosed sum. Bryant would go on to sign a new $136 million contract and still maintains multi-million dollar endorsement deals with companies like Nike.
Yet it is Sterling — who, though hateful and ignorant, did not actually bring physical harm upon another person — who was at the receiving end of the harshest punishment the league has ever dealt, and among the most severe ever handed down by officials at any of the four major sports leagues in the country.
Silver’s decision was the right one, and his office was inundated with praise from fans and players alike, pleased with the swift and decisive action taken by a new commissioner less than three months on the job.
But this raises questions as to why the misdeeds of others don’t elicit similar outrage by league officials. Do they not consider sexual abuse to be as serious a crime as racism? If the league is concerned about racism now, it’s not clear that they ever cared before: Sterling’s racism has been well-documented for the better part of a decade, a point eloquently made by ESPN host Bomani Jones the day before the NBA levied its punishment. And yet only after these tapes were released and their contents widely published did anyone at the NBA see fit to open any kind of investigation into Sterling at all.
During his press conference announcing the ban, Silver said of the Sterling tape: “Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic league.” A lovely sentiment, but it strains credulity when so many other affronts to women, gays, minorities and others are quietly dismissed or even institutionally condoned. Whether it’s a basketball player forced to endure homophobic slurs from his peers because he had the courage to come out, or an entire nation slighted because a wealthy owner stubbornly refuses to end his use of a racial epithet, the sporting world is no ally to diversity, multiculturalism or multi-ethnicity.
It can be. But banning one racist will not solve the problem.