The NBA’s Rush To Defend Magic Johnson From Donald Sterling Is The Wrong Approach


Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who was banned for life from the NBA over racist comments he made on audio recordings obtained by TMZ and Deadspin, was back on television Monday night to apologize. Instead, he re-ignited his attack on NBA legend Magic Johnson, a choice that drew a swift and strong reaction from across the NBA and in the media. But while Sterling’s latest comments are no less offensive than his original words, the reaction also raises more questions about the way the NBA and the media have reacted to this story, and how far both have to go to learn the biggest lessons of this fiasco.

Sterling’s apology was not much of an apology at all — “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things,” he said — and then he made it worse, turning his attention for some reason back to Johnson.

“What has he done?” Sterling asked CNN host Anderson Cooper. “Can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson, what has he done? He’s got AIDS. Did he do any business? Did he help anybody in South LA? … What kind of guy goes to every city and has sex with every girl and catches AIDS?”

After Cooper corrected Sterling — Johnson is HIV positive, has started businesses, and has donated sizable amounts of money to charity — the Clippers’ owner continued: “What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he goes and catches HIV,” he said. “Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. And what does he do for black people? He hasn’t done anything.

“If I said anything wrong, I’m sorry. He’s a good person. I mean, what am I going to say? Has he done everything he can do to help minorities? I don’t think so. But I’ll say it, he’s great. But I don’t think he’s a good example for the children of Los Angeles.”

Those words are just as malicious, if not more so, than the words we originally heard on tape. They are racist, they are untrue, they are no doubt hurtful to Johnson, and they are the words of a man who, intentionally or not, seems intent on burning down the house before he leaves. And so Silver responded in a statement issued Monday night.

“I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack,” Silver said. “The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.”

It’s natural and understandable that Silver wants to apologize to Johnson, who keeps ending up in the middle of this for no apparent reason. And there’s nothing wrong with defending Johnson — especially because, as my former colleague Alyssa Rosenberg wrote Tuesday, Sterling got everything wrong about Johnson’s battle with HIV and what he’s meant to how we view, treat, and fight the disease. But the league’s swift defense of Johnson also should raise questions about why Sterling’s other victims, those who he systematically discriminated against in ways that are far more pernicious and indicative of the racism that still plagues our society than anything he has said, weren’t worthy of the same defense, and why the NBA didn’t feel the need to take action on their behalf. The NBA hasn’t yet answered why it didn’t act when Sterling settled massive housing discrimination lawsuits, and neither has much of the media examined why Sterling’s spoken racism caught its attention in ways the racism he practiced did not.

Some in the media did their part to elevate the housing discrimination Sterling practiced and profited from. In 2006, ESPN’s Bomani Jones called out the media and the NBA for ignoring the multiple housing discrimination suits Sterling had settled with the federal government. In 2009, ESPN’s Peter Keating and others wrote an exhaustive account of those cases and others: from sexual harassment allegations to a lawsuit from former Clippers general manager and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor that alleged employment discrimination (Baylor’s suit was dismissed; the other suits were settled). Despite those stories, the issues they presented didn’t get the attention they deserved from the NBA or in other corners of the media.

The obvious question now is why the NBA knew about all of this and did nothing. One reason is that the media didn’t do much to push Sterling’s past into the public eye, to raise the pressure that would have forced the league to act. Hardly anyone, it seems, was ready to challenge Sterling until we had visceral, obvious racism smacking us in the face and attacking one of the NBA’s most iconic players. So as outraged as Silver and other people within the NBA are acting now, the league and the people who said nothing and took no action against Sterling at any point prior to now had a hand in creating this problem.

That includes the media, parts of which still don’t totally get it: when Jones used an ESPN Radio appearance two weeks ago to highlight the media’s failure to recognize the problem with Sterling and the larger societal effects of the housing discrimination he practiced, he earned plaudits from across the sports media, even though many of the writers praising Jones’ words had previously ignored Sterling and the larger issues of the discrimination he practiced for so long.

And it includes Silver, who deserves credit for how he has handled this situation but, as NBA commissioner, shouldn’t escape scrutiny for why the league failed to act before now. Silver wasn’t in charge during the worst of Sterling’s transgressions — he only took that job in February upon the retirement of longtime commissioner David Stern — but this is his league now, and he has to answer for it. Yet, at the press conference where he announced Sterling’s punishment, Silver only deflected when asked why the NBA had waited so long, saying that he “cannot speak for past reactions.”

“When the NBA was presented with specific evidence, it acted,” Silver said then.

That’s true, but only if specific evidence is obvious and spoken racism. That’s not good enough, and the comfort that comes with that sentiment allows everyone to pretend that ridding the NBA of Donald Sterling alone will address the larger problems he is indicative of both inside the league and out.

Silver has earned plenty of praise for how he has handled this situation. He deserves much of it. But he also needs to examine and explain why the NBA took so long to act and why it only did when Donald Sterling’s racism threatened an NBA legend and the league’s public image. He needs to examine why the racism Sterling expresses is worthy of action but the racism he practiced as a matter of business was not. And he needs to figure out how he will make it so that it won’t take so long to address problems like this in the future.

The media needs to keep asking Silver those questions. And, given that it failed when it had to chance to elevate Sterling’s racism and the systemic problems he exploited and profited from long before now, it should ask those questions of itself too.