The racist comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling — exposed in audio recordings obtained by TMZ and Deadspin — have elicited a sharp reaction both inside and outside the NBA. Players as prominent as LeBron James have declared that there’s no room in the league for Sterling. Owners and media figures have echoed. And in a testament to the 24-hour global news cycle in which we now live, the issue took mere hours to reach President Obama half-a-world away.
The NBA has launched an investigation, the preliminary results of which may be announced at a news conference Tuesday, and it seems Sterling has little chance now of surviving as the owner of the Clippers for much longer.
This is all a good thing. There isn’t room, or at least there shouldn’t be, in the NBA for Sterling, and anyone who espouses the ignorance and hatred he put forth in those tapes deserves as much public rebuke and ridicule as possible. But lost in the discussion about the visceral racism on display in those recordings is another important point: they weren’t just racist. They were sexist too.
Perhaps Sterling’s words weren’t as explicitly sexist as they were racist, but listen to the recording and it’s hard to miss if only because the sexism exists so closely to the racism. While demanding that his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, not bring black people to his games, Sterling makes it clear that he doesn’t care if she “sleeps with them” or “f***s him” (referring to Magic Johnson). He demeans her directly, calling her “stupid” and repeatedly telling her she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. He refers to her as a “born fighter” — “all you ever want to do is fight” — while telling her that they should end their relationship because he needs “a girl that will do what I want.” He wants her to conform to what it is he thinks she should be, a “delicate white or delicate Latina girl” (she’s biracial) because she doesn’t know “what people think” of her. At no point is it evident that Sterling views Stiviano as anything else but his temporary trophy, his property, a woman who should conform to what he wants whether than who she is. He’s a bully and a misogynist.
If those words don’t jump out as problematic on their face, they certainly should once put into the larger Donald Sterling context.
ESPN’s Peter Keating, Amanda Younger, and Alyssa Roenick detailed Sterling’s abhorrent history with women in 2012: in 1996, a former employee sued him for sexual harassment. The woman alleged that Sterling “offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors.” The suit alleged that Sterling often “touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable and asked her to visit friends of his for sex.” In addition, Sterling has used the Clippers to hire “hostesses,” whom he evaluated based on their looks at his own home. One later said that “working for Donald Sterling was the most demoralizing, dehumanizing experience of my life.” He later testified that he paid another woman for regular sexual favors and said, “When you pay a woman for sex, you are not together with her.” He’s asked female employees to hook him up with masseuses who will provide sexual favors. It seems obvious from his history that Sterling views women as vehicles for his own enjoyment rather than as actual human beings.
The racial nature of Sterling’s comments brought to light, belatedly, his history of racial discrimination both in his real estate dealings and as owner of the Clippers. In the last decade, he has faced multiple housing discrimination lawsuits from the federal government and an employment discrimination suit from his former general manager too. And it has raised questions about why the NBA didn’t act sooner, why Sterling was allowed to proceed with impunity even amid federal probes and lawsuits from people he employed.
We should be asking the same questions about the sexual harassment cases and the already-public details about the way Sterling treated women in his employ. Why didn’t the NBA take action? Why didn’t the media call on the NBA to do something? Why did the NBA allow a man with long list of allegations that he harassed and exploited women to continue along as if nothing had happened?
That’s not to say the racism present in Sterling’s words and history should take a backseat to the sexism that’s there too. But both issues need to be addressed, because the structural problems that allowed Racist Donald Sterling to remain in power aren’t much different from the forces that helped Sexist Donald Sterling stay there too. While both women and African-Americans have made substantial gains in employment in the league in recent years, both remain underrepresented particularly at the league’s top levels. There’s only one black majority owner; no women serve in that role. The number of vice presidents, team presidents, and top-level team and league officials who are either female, black, or both is relatively small. African-Americans make up nearly 20 percent of the NBA’s radio and TV broadcasters but a small number of sports journalists as a whole; women make up just five percent of the league’s radio and TV broadcasters, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, and many of the most prominent women in the basketball media are sideline reporters or studio anchors with less freedom to opine and freewheel on issues like this.
All of this matters. When women and African-Americans (or any other group) lack broader access to the positions of power that give them the voice or platform they need to help foster changes on issues that affect them, it shouldn’t be shocking that such change doesn’t occur. Booting Sterling from the league, as the NBA seems wont to do if it can and as many have called on it to do, won’t necessarily fix that. To really address the issue of systemic and incidental racism and sexism in its game, the NBA needs more voices of the people who are affected by both issues. And it needs them in places where they can challenge the powers-that-be when they refuse to act on people like Sterling. That doesn’t just go for the NBA — it goes for the media that let him skate for so long too.
It shouldn’t be solely the problem of women to address sexism any more than it should be solely the problem of black people to address racism. That burden should fall on perpetrators and enablers more than on victims. But having diverse voices in positions of power makes it easier to identify and address those problems to keep them from happening again, and in that sense, one aspect of the larger battles against racism and sexism in the NBA is similar even if the issues themselves are often different: neither African-Americans nor women have the access they should have, and so both are too often left out of the decision-making process when it comes to dealing with a person like Sterling the first time instead of the third, fourth, tenth, or twentieth. An NBA with more minorities and women in positions of power would still have racist, sexist Donald Sterlings who think they are above reproach. But in such an NBA, it’s less likely that a man like Sterling would prosper for so long as if nothing at all was wrong.