When The History Rhyme was first established in Fall of 2013, a main goal was to use the past as a way to better understand the events of today. Without a wider context on what has happened before, it is very difficult to understand the significance of a particular event. All alone, one event would literally be simultaneously the “best” and “worst” of whatever measurement an observer was making. Another aspect that this blog tries to help fight is the lack of awareness of larger trends that can occur without a wider perspective on history. Were the “good old days” really that good? Are we making progress on issues of economic and social equality? How can we answer Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” if you do not know how you were four (or more) years ago? Fortunately for you and for me, this modern world and its 24-hour news cycle never fails to offer events that would be helped by a wider historical perspective and a good dose of rhyming events to offer us the chance to understand today and yesterday at the same time. The event that we will discuss is this edition of The History Rhyme is the case of a man who appears to have had more dollars than sense. A man who is so filled with contradictions that he can be condemned as a racist while getting awards for his support of the people he would rather not have around. Yes, we too will discuss the curious case of Donald Sterling and his fall from grace. To do so, we will use a couple of rhyming events from our unhappy past to help us consider how times have changed in one particular area and to see who has noticed this.
Just before the end of April 2014, few people who were not long-suffering fans of the Los Angeles Clippers had heard much of Donald Sterling. That quickly changed with the release on April 25th by the website TMZ of a recorded conversation between his biracial “girlfriend” and him where Sterling chastised her for bringing African-Americans to Clippers games and for posting pictures of herself with someone like Erving “Magic” Johnson on Instagram. In a bizarre twist, Sterling is heard on the tape telling her that “you can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that [Instagram] and not to bring them to my games” (slate.com). Perhaps this modern world has made me cynical but I must admit that when I heard these comments, I did not expect much to happen. These were comments from a private conversation that he did not record and which did not include any of the overtly derogatory phrases or terms. Yes, they were racist and offensive, but this would not be the first time someone’s private racism had slipped out into the public light. A prime example of this can be found in an April 1, 2013 slide-show on the Huffington Post entitled “11 Racist Remarks Made By Politicians: A Look Back.” In many of these cases, directly racist terms were used and nothing severe happened to most of these officials. It also became quite evident that this was not the first time that anyone had realized that Sterling was known for his objectionable behavior towards the African-American community. In fact, in 2006 he had been agreed to pay the United States Justice Department $2.725 million to settle allegations that he, as a landlord, had discriminated against African-Americans and Latinos. This story was reported along with other details about the Clippers owner on the none-too-subtle article by columnist Bomani Jones of ESPN entitled “Sterling’s Racism Should Be News.” After the settlement with the Justice Department and the article by Jones, nothing happened. In fact, Sterling had been awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP in 2009 and they were about to give him another lifetime award (much to Jon Stewart’s amusement).
So, it was with great surprise that this History Rhymer learned on April 29th that Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), had fined Donald Sterling $2.5 million and banning him for life from any connections to the NBA for his comments which he labeled “deeply offensive and harmful.” In addition, he urged the NBA Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers. The move, which has earned Silver and the NBA much praise, is unprecedented in its severity and scope. This had followed a weekend of general condemnation and a sudden abandonment of the Clippers by important sponsors like CarMax, Virgin America, and Sprint, and a suspension of sponsorship by Kia and State Farm (although State Farm was quick to note that it had not suspended ties with Clippers star Chris Paul). Such a sudden groundswell of opposition after years of apathy towards Sterling’s actions caught many including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee by surprise (see their April 29th editorial “Only Surprise in Sterling Spewing Is the Swift Global Reaction”). Clearly something had changed in the few days since the TMZ story had been released. To answer the question of what had changed, we will now look at examples from the past of owners of sports teams in an effort to use the past to see the present in a wider perspective.
When comparing the current situation of Donald Sterling’s racism and the outrage expressed by many Americans and by the leadership of the NBA, modern commentators are easily drawn to the example of the former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott. After all, was she not well known for her proclivity for offensive statements against working women, Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, etc? Yes, she was (click here for examples). Was she not forced to sell the team by Major League Baseball after she said in an May 5, 1996 interview with ESPN that “everybody knows [Hitler] was good at the beginning, but he just went too far” (archive.adl.org). Yes, she was. However, this blog will not use her case as the rhyming event for two important reasons. First, Marge Schott was a woman. This opens up all sorts of questions about whether baseball felt free to remove a disagreeable woman at that time than they would have if Marge had instead been a man named Mark Schott. Second, we will not discuss her case because she is the extreme example of what Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to as “oafish racism” in his May 1, 2014 article in The Atlantic entitled “This Town Needs a Better Racist.” By his definition, an “oafish” racist “makes white people feel bad.” The opposite of this is what Coates calls “elegant racist” who “knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt” (theatlantic.com). In other words, the elegant racist knows how to use the worries and doubts of his/her time to gain support for their racist views and actions. Of course, this explanation of “elegant racism” runs the risk of falling into the trap of “presentism” that we have discussed in an earlier History Rhyme. However, in this case I am willing to take that risk because regardless of when someone lived, opposing someone simply because of his/her race is unequivocally racism.
To find a good (but not perfect) example of an “elegant racist” who knew how to use the sentiments and worries of the time to foster racist policies in the world or sports, we will now turn our attention to the man who owned the Washington Redskins from 1932 to 1969 – George Preston Marshall. Marshall was an astute businessman and showman who had turned the unprofitable Boston Braves football team in the unstable early years of the NFL into one of the economic cornerstones of the league. He was an innovator who helped shaped the game that is so popular today. He suggested the player draft (which now draws higher ratings that the NBA playoffs), called for the splitting of the league into two divisions with a championship game, moved the goal posts to encourage scoring, helped change the rules to allow passing at any spot behind the line of scrimmage, and crafted the rules that resulted in a tapered ball that helped to facilitate passing. These innovations are the main reason why Marshall was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. However, there was no denying that Marshall was also a racist owner that refused to have any black players on his team. He had a variety of stated reasons for this policy. Some of his arguments against integration were based on his idea of fairness such as when he stated that “we’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites” (espn.go.com). He also argued against integration on the grounds that it would not be safe for them because “white players, especially those from the South, would go to extremes to physically disable them” (nybooks.com). He could also argue that the fans of the team would not want to watch black players. After all, Washington was the most “southern” town in the NFL until the creation of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960. A sign of this anti-integration sentiment can be seen in the deliciously ironic signs that were displayed in a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1961 outside of the new D. C. Stadium (subsequently renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium) that read “Keep Redskins White!” However, the most important and most convincing argument used at that time had to do with money. The Redskins were the league’s “southern” team in what had been in the 1930s and 40s a very ardently segregationist Washington DC. Marshall could convincingly argue that he risked financial ruin for not only his team but also his broadcasting empire if he used black players. White fans would stay away as would the advertisers who paid for the broadcasting of team games.
Although Marshall may have felt himself to be reflecting the views of his team’s fans and his community, not all agreed. During much of the latter half of the 1950s, the woeful state of the all-white Redskins (which did not have a winning season from 1956 to 1961) made them an object of scorn of local sports reporters like Shirley Povich (father of Maury Povich and future father-in-law of Connie Chung) of the Washington Post who once mockingly noted in a report of a loss to the Cleveland Browns that “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated the end zone three times yesterday” and at another time noted that the team colors for the Redskins were “burgundy, gold and Caucasian” (washingtonpost.com). Another source of opposition in the Washington area was the activist elements of the black community which at times boycotted Redskins games in conjunction with the NAACP and CORE – all to no avail. In the end, it took another financial issue, the unavailability of the new DC stadium to segregated teams, to force Marshall to relent from his segregationist policy. This occurred because the new DC stadium was built on land that was under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart L. Udall, strongly opposed segregation and saw the threat of being unable to use the new stadium as the weapon that was needed to integrate the team. Although Marshall fought against Federal pressure throughout the 1961 season, he finally relented and agreed to draft black players in 1962. That year, the first black to be signed to the team was fullback Ron Hatcher. In a final sign that Marshall was not a man who had changed his views, he refused to pose with Hatcher for photographs because he did not wish to “exploit” the situation (washingtonian.com).
Now that we have looked at our two rhyming events, we can try to determine if the earlier event really helps us to understand the latter event. After all, both are examples of pressure being applied to a racist sports team owner to force the team to change either its policies or its leadership. However, upon closer examination the reason for these changes are not that similar. In the case Donald Sterling, the suddenness of public outcry was much more noteworthy and influential than any public opposition faced by George Marshall. In fact, the public outcry (especially from the black community) was irrelevant to Marshall and perhaps even helped him with the white, Southern fans that he claimed to represent. Instead, the reason why Marshall caved and the Redskins were integrated had to do with government pressure in the form of a threat of eviction from the new stadium. In an interesting twist of history, it is starting to appear that the real rhyming event for the integration of the Washington Redskins may be in the growing call for current owner, Daniel Snyder, to stop calling his team what many consider to be an offensive slur against Native Americans. Up until recently, there had been several examples of litigation and protests by various Native American groups. There had also been threats by government officials to punish the team if the name was not changed – not unlike the threats Udall used against Marshall in 1961 (cnn.com). Especially interesting for our discussion is that NBA Commissioner Alan Silver’s strong response to Donald Sterling is being held up by some such as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (in a May 7, 2014 interview with Time magazine) as a model for how the NFL should deal with Snyder’s intransigence on the naming issue.
So, where does that leave us with the case of Donald Sterling? Is the past not useful in understanding the suddenness of the response against the racism of the owner of the Clippers? Actually it is but not as a “history rhyme.” It is more as a historical anti-rhyme or as a sign that some things have considerably changed since the early 1960s. Specifically there has been a pronounced change in the economic power of the African-American community. In the case of George Marshall’s refusal to integrate the Redskins, there had been attempts by the black community to boycott the team, these had been ineffectual because Marshall viewed white Southerners as his primary audience and he asserted that they did not want integration. Contrast that to the modern NBA which according to a Nielsen survey of the league’s demographics shows that 45% of its audience is African-American (theatlantic.com). Also of importance is that the buying power of African-Americans has risen sharply since 1990 from $316.3 billion to $1,037.7 billion in 2012. Undoubtedly of additional special interest to the NBA is the fact that there are significant African-American economic power bases in the most populated states – most of which have at least one NBA team. Although the companies that abandoned or suspended relations with the Clippers (most notably State Farm which did not drop Chris Paul as their spokesperson for their “Born To Assist” campaign) would be unlikely to say so publicly, they must be aware of the conclusions of the report “Black Buying Power Continues To Rise” on the website ReachingBlackConsumers.com (reachingblackconsumers.com) that “as African Americans’ share of the nation’s total buying power expands, business-to-consumer firms can be expected to devote more resources towards developing and marketing products that meet the needs and match the preference of black consumers.” Was the economics of outrage really what brought down Donald Sterling? Will this power continue to grow as the economic power of African-Americans grows? Time will tell and we will be there to do the telling.
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