Donald Sterling is suddenly a pariah. An ultra-wealthy American business magnate and former attorney, Sterling is the 81-year-old owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers. The league announced today its plan to suspend Sterling for life and fine him $2.5 million for racially insensitive comments he made that were retrieved and broadcast from a recorded private phone call.
Anti-Stern folks will say that modern times finally caught up with Sterling, who’s had a checkered past with racial issues. Those more compassionate will resist jumping atop the dog pile and study why the man is the way he is.
Put simply, Sterling is a product of his times — just as his accusers are products of theirs. The problem is the gap between the two.
It is common knowledge that the NBA – like the other two biggest U.S. sports leagues, the NFL and Major League Baseball — has many African-American and Latino players. But outside the lines the racial demographics of all three leagues are dramatically different, as explained six months ago when Lapchick published his updated 2013 diversity data concerning the NBA, the NFL, and MLB.
In 2013, he reported, 76.3 percent of NBA players were African-American.
“The fraction of African-Americans shrinks as we move up the management chain,” he wrote, ” as 43.3 percent of NBA coaches were black compared with just 2 percent of the league’s majority owners (of the NBA’s 49 majority owners, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats was the only person of color, according to Lapchick’s data).
The NBA is the city game and city games are supported by urban fans. It is the street game. With the majority of players and millions of fans being African-American, all immediately jumped on Sterling’s insensitive remarks with the fervor of birthday kids on a trampoline.
As I watched and read these outcries of condemnation, I was struck by the contrast between Sterling’s age (81) and those of his accusers (20s, 30, and 40s). There is a generational gap here, and that gap defines the problem.
Sterling was born in 1933, which means his childhood evolved during the Great Depression and World War II. Since a person’s outlook on life is shaped by his first 13 years, Sterling’s impressionable period was between 1933 and 1946. It was during this slice of American history that his map of the world was formed. This was a very bigoted time in American history.
Sterling is a product of his times. So are the people jumping all over him today. They are products of their times. The lens through which Sterling sees the world was formed seven decades ago. Those much younger who judge him today do so through lenses whose prescriptions were ground far more recently — at least two generations later.
This is unfair.
Core beliefs — our personal values — are shaped by our upbringing. Once formed they are almost impossible to change. If you want to understand your parents better, revisit how their life unfolded when they were kids. What seems muddy now will become crystal clear.
Sterling grew up at a time when there was zero racial harmony in America. The NBA signed its first black player in 1950. Baseball wasn’t fully integrated until 1958. Until then black and white Americans could die side-by-side in a foxhole but not play second and short. Racial tensions, battles, lynching, and murders continued in a horrible way through 1968 — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — and beyond. The process from where we were to where we are to where we need to go is slow. It is a long road behind, a long road ahead.
We have progressed but not far enough fast enough. For every high profile media target like Donald Sterling and his predictably racist upbringing there stands hidden in the shadows a bitter black man who will never forgive the whites for the horrible unjust treatment he and his family was forced to endure during those terribly dark times.
Sterling runs a business — an entertainment business — and entertainment businesses must constantly reinvent themselves. Sterling bought his team in 1981 for $12.5 million and is the league’s longest running owner. Today his team is worth $575 million or so. He has owned the Clippers 33 years, which is longer than all of his players are old except one.
What this story is really about is not Donald Sterling and racism. It is about compassion. May each of us be compassionate enough to judge another by the road he or she has traveled as much as where he stands. Each of us was raised the best our parents could do. We should not judge the upbringing of others as right or wrong. It just is.
The real sadness today is not Donald Sterling. Donald Sterling is understandable for anyone who cares to stop clubbing him long enough to understand why he looks at the world the way he does. The real sadness will be if today’s generation repeats such behavior as their lives unfold. Their 0-to-13 years have been lived in a more progressive time, a more enlightened and better time, a time that represents a truer meaning of the words “all men (and women) are equal.”
It is up to this generation — the same one beating up Sterling — to put down their clubs of judgment and intolerance and lead us forward. Do not condemn those whose childhood meant surviving the Great Depression and the gassing of 6 million innocent Jews.
We must be bigger. Way bigger.
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