Peter Funt: Sterling’s message says something about America
The issue brought to light in the Donald Sterling matter is this: neither passing legislation nor even electing a black president can cleanse all minds of evil thoughts.
Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, is alleged to have made racist remarks about African-Americans. Considering Sterling’s past behavior, including paying $2.7 million in a housing discrimination suit, the allegations ring true.
His is said to be the voice in a tape, released by TMZ.com, in conversation with Sterling’s female friend named V. Stiviano. The male voice says it’s unwise to post messages and photos on social media about friendships with blacks. The male even goes so far as to berate Stiviano for bringing the NBA great Magic Johnson, a black who is part owner of the L.A. Lakers, to Clippers’ games.
The tale is complicated by the fact that Stiviano faces a lawsuit from Sterling’s family in which it is alleged that she embezzled nearly $2 million. Sterling has denied making the comments that were recorded, presumably by Stiviano, and given to TMZ.
But regardless of whether the NBA’s investigation confirms that the voice is Sterling’s, the fact is racism remains a serious problem in America. Blacks are the NBA’s dominant achievers, and a black man holds the highest office in the land, yet in a perverse and tragic way, such advances probably increase the level of ill-will among bigots.
If the voice on the recording is Sterling’s, and if it was recorded without his knowledge by Stiviano, then what we have is a crude, yet private, conversation. Under California law, similar to those in 11 other states, it is illegal to make recordings without the prior consent of all parties, unless the conversation occurs in public where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Stiviano could face a year in jail for such an offense.
Just as the TMZ story broke, I happened to be conducting a social experiment in Arizona for our “Candid Camera” program. A well-dressed British man and a modestly dressed Mexican man each asked passersby for a favor. Almost everyone stopped to hear what the British guy needed. Some did stop for the Mexican—but many people wouldn’t even break stride, and a few detoured across the street to avoid direct contact.
No amount of legislation changes what lies in the heart. Many Americans—a shrinking universe, perhaps, but still a vast number—are frightened by social progress. Rather than accepting Latinos, or blacks, or Muslims, or gays, or anyone else who is trying to climb the social ladder, they become cowards. And they say things such as, “It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you are associating with black people,” which is a quote from the TMZ recording.
Magic Johnson said he feels sorry for his friends on the Clippers. Kobe Bryant said he wouldn’t play for a man like Donald Sterling. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest player ever, said he was “sickened.”
Social media are ablaze with comments correctly condemning the remarks attributed to the Clippers’ owner. The Clippers players, while not able to say much publicly, staged a silent protest before Sunday’s game, wearing black socks and turning warm-up jerseys inside out to hide the team logo.
As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
Throughout sports, politics and the American landscape, sadly, that struggle continues.