Monday, April 28, 2014

Donald Sterling and the Commodification of Human Beings

Donald Sterling is horrifying. Donald Sterling is predictable.
From Deadspin:
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?
Sterling: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
The validity of the recording notwithstanding, we already knew this much about Donald Sterling: he is an unrepentant racist obsessed with the commodification and fetishization of black men. If, as many suspect, a combination of public and private forces impress on him to sell the Clippers, he will be roughly one billion dollars richer for his latest public act of inhumanity. Sterling is a slumlord and a misogynist and, as NBA-humping Chris Broussard of all people put it, he “has the mentality of an antebellum slave master.” The NBA, which has for three decades ignored fairly public signs of this mindset (see: Deadspin’s cavalcade of Sterling’s horrors), was finally compelled to act, launching an investigation and asking Sterling to steer clear of NBA games.

Players, fans and crucially, other owners are upset, and rightfully so. I certainly hope that Sterling’s pathologies about race and sex are his and his alone among NBA owners, but this commodification of predominantly black male bodies and insistence that wealth and occasional insignificant acts of charity - see Sterling’s bio on the Clippers website in all its typo-laden glory - lends one noblesse oblige did not arise in a vacuum. Everything in this story, from the NBA’s decades-long acceptance of Sterling’s racism to its measured response asking him not to attend games instead of suspending him outright, is a predictable narrative of privileged wealth assuming unto itself.

Strip out the racial component and you arrive at a very difficult question: to whom do sports and sports teams belong? Sterling clearly thinks he is the Clippers, the players merely a product but not a partner. I suspect most owners view the relationship as somewhat more codependent; players benefit from the NBA’s institutional (and monopolistic) advantages and the NBA owners benefit from their product having the best collection of athletes of any basketball league. That said, the league’s recent owner-instituted lockout was an obvious power play from ownership. The players may be the product, a product which teams coddle and pay millions, but the owners control the league.

The lockout was a classic labor-management battle with the major distinction being the product is inextricable from the labor. The players had the leverage that there wouldn't be a scab NBA, but if the players didn’t get in line and thank ownership for what morsels the owners offered, the mega-rich owners would weather the storm while the players would suffer. Granted, NBA business is booming and the owners wanted as much of a cut as they could get, a stance I can’t fault them for. However, the lockout treated NBA players as a commodity, which to a major extent they are, while ignoring their humanity. In that context, the paternalism of David Stern instituting a dress code because his league looked too ghetto or Donald Sterling inviting women to gawk at the beautiful black bodies showering in his locker room are orders of magnitude apart but of the same mindset.

This view of labor as a disembodied being that should be grateful anyone is willing to pay for its services prevails. Donald Sterling is a particularly repugnant example of this mindset, but he is not alone. Wealth has a way of insisting upon itself, and unsurprisingly many owners feel their mere existence as owners justifies any treatment of players, a mindset which in turn creeps toward fans.


The Milwaukee Bucks play in one of the smallest markets in the NBA and this year submitted one of the worst seasons in NBA history, winning fewer games than a Philadelphia team so brazenly trying to lose that it traded away its only assets for useless picks and shut down its first round draft pick for the season, lest he accidentally win them some games. Nonetheless, the NBA recently approved the sale of this same team for a cool $550 million, a mere $532 million increase in price since embattled team owner and ex-Senator Herb Kohl bought the team in 1985. And in an act of nigh-unprecedented largesse, Kohl has offered to contribute nearly ⅕ of that sum to building a new arena, such that the Bucks can remain in Milwaukee (a condition of the team’s sale). Kohl was widely celebrated for this selfless gesture - remember the Supersonics were ripped from Seattle, burgeoning superstar in tow, for refusing to comply with the NBA’s wishes and commit public funds to building a new arena, and whisked to Oklahoma City. The Bucks will remain in Milwaukee, and Kohl will become significantly richer (though $100 million less than he could be). Kohl clearly learned an important lesson in that Sonics heist: it was a PR nightmare for the NBA, but the NBA survived; basketball in Seattle did not.

Sports teams are a peculiar example in the world of corporate politics. They are neither wholly public nor private, dependent on a city’s love and ruthless in leveraging that love into further advantages.

The Bucks’ current stadium, the Bradley Center, lacks many of the charms and amenities of the more modern entertainment-oriented arenas. A gift to the city from the Pettit-Bradley family, it was built with private funds, though subsequent renovations have been publicly funded. Just past its 25th anniversary, it is one of the oldest stadiums in the NBA, and truthfully outdated by NBA standards. Whatever new arena is coming, odds are the taxpayers of Milwaukee will be on the hook for much of it (Miami owes nearly $2 billion over the next 20 years for the new Marlins stadium, a team no one supports with an owner everyone loathes). If and when these new Bucks owners sell, however, the city of Milwaukee won’t see any of that money. I’m tempted to blame the owners for this setup but in the perverse logic of the abused am forced to conclude: it’s not extortion if cities bend over backward to accommodate teams. This peculiar financing arrangement is made more insane by the fact that sports teams don’t really create jobs, at least not on the level that would make underwriting these stadiums viable. Professional sports teams, for city and owner alike, are the ultimate prestige purchase. Except, they’re now cash cows to owners.

Sports exist at the heart of a public/private debate that defines much of modern American politics. Beyond the conflict of privately owned teams playing in publicly funded venues, sports leagues are built on the illusion of competition. Since the product itself is competition, it’s in the interest of professional sports leagues to ensure competition is healthy, a difficult status quo to maintain without centralized intervention. Thus, leagues seek to level the playing field, a phrase anathema to much of the country, because competitive drama is a good business model. Basketball has a clear upper class of teams, but a national TV deal (of which each team receives an equal share regardless of the number of appearances), revenue sharing and salary caps ensure every team has a chance to compete and make money. Imagine, for a minute, this kind of arrangement existing between Apple, Samsung and Google.

Sports also peddle hometown pride - jingoism,  if you prefer to think of it that way - and here again the public/private distinction gets thrown into sharp relief. When the Red Sox won the World Series last year, it was a triumphant moment for the city of Boston and an economic boon to t-shirt makers, but Boston itself didn’t win anything. John Henry’s Red Sox did.

That question of metaphysical ownership comes up again. Sports leagues only flourish because the public buys into them; the players benefit but the owners most of all. It’s not hard to see ownership losing sight of the other two actors in its accounting for its own success.


The NBA is a monolith. While it markets fun and unpredictability in a way the NFL and MLB actively shy away from, the NBA is equally concerned with institutional control and, to borrow the NFL’s parlance, protecting the shield. The league will act swiftly toward Sterling, and even if it’s decades late, hopefully some good can come of this. This incident will be treated as if Sterling is a one-off, a crazy who somehow wormed his way into a system that is otherwise full of upstanding gentleman (like the Russian oligarch or the fracking mogul). Again, the racial element of that conversation may be Sterling’s alone, but you can bet the NBA will act in a way to maintain the power of the owners over the players. He will probably be suspended, but I doubt the league would publicly force Sterling to sell, as other owners may fear the precedent that would set. That’s just how these things go. Power clings to power and the sun rises in the East.

I have a lot of empathy for Clippers players, fans, and employees (imagine the usher who works at Staples Center, equally furious but not financially set up like the players and without a forum to make his disgust heard). I hope the team does well, as I genuinely enjoy watching Paul, Griffin, Jordan et al play basketball. Their coordinated removal of jackets to show inside-out, logo-less practice jerseys was a beautiful gesture in a difficult time, and if they manage to win the championship I hope their celebrations leave some time to rip the owner to shreds. But the NBA itself is culpable, too.

The NBA has a long history of treating its players as powerless, as commodities to exploit. To expect the players to seize power now, perhaps by boycotting, is unrealistic. Yes, the players nearly boycotted the 1964 All-Star Game, but those players were acting on behalf of the entire league. The league has made strides, and that near boycott led to the acceptance of a players’ union, but this paternalism abides.

Sterling’s a monster, but ultimately, a monster the NBA created.

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