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How Donald Sterling Violated The NBA's Unspoken Social Contract

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on April 21.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on April 21.

We play for each other, for our fans, and for our families — not Donald Sterling.

That was the general message that players for the Los Angeles Clippers reiterated, off-mic, when the Sterling fiasco blew up over the weekend. They were being buffeted by questions about how, exactly, they might respond to allegations that Sterling, the team owner, had been recorded saying that he did not want black people to attend his team's games. Would they boycott? Would they be focused enough to be able to play?

But the Clippers players did play, in a very literal way, for Donald Sterling: He owned their contracts and thus their basketball labor. That is, before the NBA handed down a severe punishment on Tuesday afternoon in which he was banned from being involved in the team's operations, with Adam Silver, the league's commissioner, saying he would urge its Board of Governors to vote to force to sell the team.

All but two of the Clippers are black, which is not unusual; about 8 in 10 NBA players are. But the ownership class for the league's 30 teams, on the other hand, is almost uniformly white. (The two exceptions are Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan and the Sacramento Kings' Vivek Ranadive.)

This contrast between the largely white ownership and the largely black labor force is something that usually goes unremarked upon, even as it informs the way the league presents itself to the world. (Consider the NBA's decision to impose a dress code in 2005, a move designed to counter a perception that the league was full of thugs.)

But the Sterling fracas has pushed all of this not-quite-subtext to the fore, in part because Sterling told his former girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that his compensation of his players for their work was an act of charity:

"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? Do I know that I have — Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?"

Those comments left the Clippers players in a pretty ugly spot. Rembert Browne at Grantland summed up the quandary they were facing before Sterling's punishment was imposed:

"Not to say that being a famous, wildly rich, idolized basketball player shelters anyone from racism or all the ills of being black in America, but when something like this happens — when employees are made to feel like worthless pawns and representations of some inferior species — the glitz and glamour and prestige suddenly disappear. And like that, instantly, someone like DeAndre Jordan is just a 25-year-old black employee, one with some decisions to make. Decisions that involve answering questions like, 'What should I do?,' 'What can I do?,' and ultimately 'What will I do?' "

LeBron James of the Miami Heat spoke over the weekend to the press about the Sterling news. "I just think ... I can only imagine if a player came out and said something of that stature what would happen to us as players," he said. James, the league's most popular player and one of its most well-compensated stars, seemed to be acknowledging that there were different rules for players and owners — as Wesley Morris puts it, "quietly [reiterating] the trouble with ownership and the impression of being owned."

That both the league's owners and the players are comfortably ensconced in the upper reaches of the 1 percent tends to obscure the nature of their relationship.

"A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons," writes Josh Levin of Slate. "But like Sterling says, it's the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. When an NBA owner tells his players to jump, the guys in sneakers are contractually obligated to ask how high."

When Silver announced the sanctions against Sterling, he seemed genuinely upset and empathetic to the Clippers players who were swept up in the controversy. The commissioner's punishment keeps the NBA's peculiar social contract in place, even as the Sterling scandal revealed just how easily that contract can be broken.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.