Sterling, the NBA, race & sports media’s racist history

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is right.

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. (Photo from Deadspin.com)

In his editorial for Time, the former Los Angeles Laker great wrote that Clippers owner, billionaire racist Donald Sterling is “a handmaiden to the bigger evil. In our quest for social justice, we shouldn’t lose sight that racism is the true enemy.”

But what do sports writers do with an enemy within, an enemy that can’t be defeated?

Today, the establishment sports media wrote about a winner: Adam Silver. Twitter lit up with praise for the NBA commissioner when he banned Sterling for life. 

But, still, many from the establishment sports media complex and sport professionals chimed in with the obvious question of why Sterling’s racism hadn’t been documented before this illegally-recorded conversation blew his cover.

Here is why in one unpopular fragment: BECAUSE SPORTS MEDIA ARE RACIST, TOO.

No, you aren’t going to find any modern-day writers using “nigger” in a column and you will see ESPN air some sound-byte clips praising Jackie Robinson — albeit in an almost flippant way — around the middle of April each spring.

Still, the media are racist, too.

How deep seated is this racism?

Judge Landis was the first commissioner of MLB. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1944, the year he died in office. The MVP award is named after him. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern University Library archives)

From 1920 to 1944, Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled Major League Baseball with an iron fist. And, underneath that fist, were the dreams of black baseball players.

Landis publicly said the fate of black players was determined by team owners, but Landis — as Chris Lamb noted in “The Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball” — did “practically everything within his power to keep baseball segregated, but he could not have kept baseball segregated without the cooperation of league executives, team owners,
and sportswriters.”

Lamb opens his book by taking us to the New York Baseball Writers’ Association’s 10th annual dinner at the Commodore Hotel in 1933. Former Giants manager John McGraw was honored that night. Heywood Broun of the New York World-Telegram said in a speech that blacks should be allowed to play baseball. Of the dozens of writers at the dinner, only one even mentioned Broun’s suggestion. (Another later praised McGraw in print, writing that “McGraw was the only man officially identified with the big leagues who had the guts to say that Negroes should not be permitted to play in teams with white men.”)

A thoroughly white baseball media corps did nothing to reveal Landis’s racist views, to expose McGraw’s blatant preferences or to shine a light on indignities blacks suffered in sport at the hands, or mouths, of those in power. (Sound familiar, yet?)

Grantland Rice is dubbed the “dean of America’s sports writers.” (Photo from Los Angeles Times)

One of the most famous sports writers of the time, Grantland Rice, wrote frequently with racist flair, referring to black athletes in derogatory terms. It never crossed his mind that the slur-filled rants of his friend Ty Cobb were offensive, either.  (And today’s pop culture/sports website/ESPN.com spinoff is named what?)

Sports writers supported the actions of the U.S. Olympic Committee after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in black solidarity after winning medals in Mexico in 1968. Sports writers have nodded their heads and suggested black athletes shut up and play.

We — and I include my former sports writer self in this — use the played narrative of the athlete-escapes-the-ghetto and think it’s OK. We miss what it might mean when the majority of the men on the football field are black and the 75,000 fans in the stadium are almost exclusively white. We never write about that.

We never speak about why black athletes dominate many sports or why blacks’ need to be accepted trumps their independence in professional sport. We never talk about that.

Why?

Because we live in the white, masculine hegemonic state and writing about it and talking about it are just “political debates over curricular needs,” as Derrick Bell wrote in his groundbreaking book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.”

Bell suggests racism is permanent, so Donald Sterling should surprise us as much as Cliven Bundy, as much as Marge Schott, as much as the person sitting next to you.

The establishment sport media have mentioned nothing of the misogyny involved in the Sterling debacle. It has cheered commissioner Silver for doing the only thing he could do given the outrage and potential commercial backlash. It has scratched off the scab and watched a little drop of blood roll across the flesh.

But, this is a sports media corps — and a society — that does not dare peel back the skin and explore the maze of vessels or the heart that pushes the blood through it.

Bell writes that racism is “a story less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up.”

Is the collective American sports media so wrapped up in the winning and the losing that it simply refuses to cover a fight that can’t be won?

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