Far from Sterling: Rebranding racism in sports

While the NBA is quick to ban Donald Sterling’s for his explicit racism, more subtle issues of race are neglected.

Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA for leaked racist remarks [AP]

Sports owners and executives are invested in projecting an image of colourblind competition: On the field of play, the only colours that matter are those worn by your team. Sports executives and owners promote an image of a post-racial playing field, while simultaneously committed to packaging their brands in a form that resonates with corporate sponsors and aligns with white sensibilities.

Donald Sterling’s racist diatribe, which was leaked by TMZon April 25 interrupted business as usual in the NBA. The leaked tape reinvigorated public discourse on race and racism in sport during the League’s most bankable quarter – the playoffs.

The Sterling fallout also revealed the NBA’s caricatured conception of “racism”. Namely, the commissioner’s press conference and the league-wide conversation that ensued highlighted how the definition of racism in sport has been flattened, narrowed, and not surprisingly, segregated from the structural and strategic racism that drives the brand management and marketing of major sports in the US today and most notably in the NBA.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has evolved into a global commodity. With fans all over the world, its top athletes are as recognisable as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Although a worldwide brand today, the NBA’s struggle has long been selling a “Black game” to a white audience stateside, and non-Blacks on the international front.

‘Less black and more professional’

Today 76 percent of NBA players are Black. Before the influx of international talent in the 1990s, the proportion of Black players was even higher. NBA owners, all of whom were white until 2002, set off to do the impossible: convert a predominantly Black NBA into a non-Black league.

First, league owners sought to transform the league’s image. Hip-hop culture was ubiquitous in the NBA, manifested by the music played at stadiums to the style of dress worn by its biggest stars. The corn-rowed Allen Iverson, who commonly wore baseball caps and medallions at press conference, replaced the suit-and-tie professionalism of Michael Jordan.

The shift was far more than merely aesthetic. Jordan personified the apolitical sensibility and trans-racial marketability NBA owners coveted. Jordan was said to “transcend race“, while Iverson’s slang resonated more with street kids than corporate sponsors. While Jordan faded away from race and politics, claiming: “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, Iverson represented the very culture and community NBA owners sought to clip.

Today 66 percent of the NBA management is white, while all but 1 of the 30 League owners are white.

And clip they did. In November 1, 2005, the NBA introduced a dress code specifically aimed at purging “hip hop and street” culture from the League. The strictly enforced code banned players from wearing t-shirts, medallions and chains, headphones, and caps during team and league activities. The league encouraged its athletes to emulate Michael Jordan and spurn Allen Iverson, and later introduced new policies that chilled political speech. Furthermore, athletes that looked and dressed like businessman, instead of rappers, meant higher ticket sales, and most importantly, more lucrative corporate sponsorships.

The bottom line was the bottom line. The owners’ racial erasure sought to lure corporate sponsors, sell luxury boxes at stadiums, and engineer segregated sporting events where largely white spectators cheer on brown and black athletes.

The message from a virtually all-white ownership to a predominantly African-American workforce was clear: Maximising profits meant looking, speaking, and acting “less black and more professional”, the latter a proxy for “acting white“. Their strategy succeeded. Today’s NBA features smartly dressed, clean cut athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who stray far from political activism to maximise their marketability.

In addition to the dress code, racial inequity in the NBA is most visible when perusing the stands during a game, or examining the racial composition of League management. Every year, NBA tickets rise in price, oftentimes making them prohibitively expensive for working class fans of colour, many of whom hail from communities NBA players once called home.

Today 66 percent of the NBA management is white, while all but 1 of the 30 League owners are white. In fact, Michael Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, stands alone as the only non-white principal owner in the NBA, the National Football League (NFL), and Major League Baseball (MB).

Therefore, although the athletes in US sports leagues are predominantly black and brown, the decision-makers are white. These decision-makers dictate how to market their leagues, govern their athletes, and define what is and is not racism.

The NBA, widely considered the most progressive major US sports league, has marketed its league in a fashion harmful to communities of colour, particularly African-Americans. However, League executives have protected their interests and defended their marketing strategies by flattening the conception of racism – defining the term in the narrowest, most caricatured form.

Enter Donald Sterling

Mascots are integral to sports. In additions to team names and logos, professional sports makes mascots out of individuals that jeopardise their brand. In 1996, the NBA suspended and subsequently blackballed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand during the national anthem.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, has been marginalised from the league for his candid commentary on racism in sport. Rauf and Abdul-Jabbar, respectively, represent the mascot of the “subversive” and the “radical” in sport. They are relics of a bygone era when athletes were political beings not products.

Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, became the mascot for racism in the NBA, and US sports at large, following the leak of his racist diatribe. During a private call with his mistress, Sterling unleashed blatantly racist remarks toward African-Americans and Latinos, and made plain a worldview that surprised nobody within the NBA

Adam Silver, the newly appointed NBA commissioner, banned Sterling for life on April 29. His press conference was not only an occasion to purge Sterling from the NBA, but an opportunity to express the League’s official definition of racism to a global audience.

One can easily deduct from all this ado that “racism” in NBA has to be: 1) explicit and intentional; 2) public; and 3) harmful to the sport’s brand and bottom line.

Sterling’s leaked phone call met all three requirements. He instantly became the NBA’s new racial villain, or mascot. Sterling’s not so sterling record of slumlording, and discriminating against Black and Latino tenants in Los Angeles, did not warrant a lifetime ban. These private activities did not tarnish the NBA seal, although their ramifications on people of colour supersede the harm from his leaked diatribe.

Yet, the NBA is less concerned with the racist harm suffered by poor and working class minorities, while desperately vigilant in punishing and purging anything that might harm its brand.

Furthermore, banning Sterling for racist and racially dubious business tactics would have, very likely, exposed similar practices by the NBA’s other 29 owners. Or worse, it would have called into question the League’s racial rebranding and marketing tactics. Sterling did not want “Blacks at his games”, or “Blacks and Latinos” in his apartment complexes. However, is this radically different from the NBA’s colourblind marketing strategy?

Or, are Sterling’s blatantly racist words nothing more than honest expressions of the segregated game NBA gatekeepers developed by deploying racist management, marketing, and rebranding campaigns?

The goals are the same, so is the view from the courtside seats. But Sterling’s blatant hate fit the League’s narrow definition of racism, while the behind-the-scenes racism of the other 30 owners is just business as usual.  

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun