Donald Sterling’s publicly disclosed comments depict an anachronistic view of race relations in this country. His interview tour is beyond incomprehensible, sad, ignorant, and completely shows that he has lost touch with reality. His media revelations are undoubtedly hurtful, not only to the African-American players and staff of the NBA, but really hurtful to many Americans regardless of their race, who feel that finally (as partially symbolized by the ascension of President Barack Obama and others) we have evolved as a society beyond a preoccupation with race. These are people who are proud to live in a nation that has moved closer to an ideal urges us to judge our fellow human by their competence and character instead of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
It was and remains an embarrassing moment, not only for the NBA and society, but surely as well for the Sterling family, who now must live under the stigma or suspicion that deep within their hearts they condone such sentiments by their patriarch. Hopefully the candid peek behind the curtain into the private life of Mr. Sterling can also help us air some of the laundry about race in this country and speak a bit more frankly than civil discourse usually permits. In response to an interviewer question about “whether something good can come out of this,” NBA clippers’ coach Doc Rivers stated, “I think something good comes out of everything.” And that something “good” might be that some wealthy African-Americans might put their money where their race is, and step up to become part of an ownership group that ultimately purchases the LA Clippers.
That is a potentially good outcome, but not for the reasons some may assume. First, it marks a departure from the usual stance that blacks have had towards dealing with racism, and demonstrates the progress that this country has made towards obliterating racial discrimination. In the not so distant past, even if some individual blacks had achieved the financial wealth to be in a position to purchase a major sports franchise, their ability to purchase might have been blocked for other, non-economic reasons. The fact that the NBA and the other owners are encouraging and demanding black entrepreneurs take a leadership role as owners in the league is a sign of maturity on the part of society.
But it also marks an opportunity for more African Americans to mature and recognize their significant economic power in the market place of ownership. Some American blacks have taken comfort in a position of victim hood in this society. In some respects it has removed the responsibility to take control of their own lives. For them racism has been more of a crutch than an impediment, in that it discounted personal failures and amplified personal success. The very fact that black ownership of professional sports teams remains a milestone despite the financial capacity of members of black community to purchase them, is an obvious example. Why does it take such a repugnant event to spark the ownership bug? And is the symbolism of having blacks in the owner’s box ownership possibly overshadowing the real business realities of professional sports franchise ownership?
In potentially taking on the mantle of ownership, be it by blacks or any other race, the issue of character will remain front and center. Being black or of any race will not make ownership of an NBA franchise any easier. It’s one thing to play the victim and blame one’s circumstances on discrimination. It’s another stance to take responsibility for one’s circumstances and succeed, not despite – but in fact because of the obstacles one faces and overcomes. Ownership changes one’s orientation towards life in that regard.
As a business owner, I rarely think about race or society or what’s going on in someone else’s mind or in their closet. The buck literally stops with me, and I find myself much more than fully engaged with the challenges of meeting payroll, managing TV stations, Publishing American Currentsee, hosting daily talk shows, generating new ideas, and providing quality products in the marketplace. There is a certain level of being above the fray that’s necessary to manage such responsibilities. Employees may have the option of not showing up, but ownership is a 24/7 job with no days off. As an owner, one has a broader constituency than just the racial or social class to which one ascribes. In reality, owners themselves are owned by the marketplace. And because so much is riding on it – employee’s families and careers, providing critical goods and services to society at large – ownership demands the very best from us.
The reality is that ownership of a business is not an entitlement that one assumes based on one’s wealth, but it’s a job just like any other within an organization. It requires the skill ownership, which is really the judgment to make certain sacrifices in furtherance of the overall success of the organization. Donald Sterling, despite having demonstrated great business acumen over the years, lost sight of this. He let his personal prejudices and, apparently, appetites, get in the way of his better judgment.
He saw the players and the team as his personal toys, not as a members of an organization that deserved his full respect and leadership. It really begs the question of how he could expect to build a championship team – and successful business – on the backs of employees (players and coaches) for whom he has so little respect. This is a lesson that he should have learned long ago, but failed to appreciate despite several brushes with controversy. Moreover, Sterling critically misjudged the society in which we live. There are many who are outright offended by a suggestion that associating with blacks – or any other race -- carries a social stigma. There are sizeable and growing numbers of interracial relationships and adoptions, especially in Los Angeles. In other words, you never know just based on the color of someone’s skin where their sentiments on the subject of race may lie. That’s why this issue extends far beyond the African American community in particular and affects society, and business, overall. Any new prospective owners would do well to consider these lessons before jumping into the arena.