Why Donald Sterling's inevitable downfall is proof that the "outrage machine" actually works

Pundits love to mock Twitter's ability to stoke anger — but the rapid fall of a corrupt NBA owner shows its value

Published April 28, 2014 8:17PM (EDT)

Donald Sterling                (AP/Danny Moloshok)
Donald Sterling (AP/Danny Moloshok)

David West defines the NBA position known as "power forward."

West plays with extraordinary force. Even his game face carries enough weight to knock defenders down. He and his team, the Indiana Pacers, are currently in the fight of their professional lives. On Saturday afternoon, the Pacers escaped Atlanta with a win, tying their first-round series at two games apiece. Typical post-game procedure, after running the gantlet of media ops, might involve getting your knees iced, packing up to fly back to Indiana, maybe a massage. But less than two hours after the end of the game, West was tweeting about the NBA story of the day, the incendiary audio recording of vile racist remarks, made by a man purported to be Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

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Twitter has become notorious as a vehicle for fake outrage and trumped-up controversy, slammed for its supposed toxicity and triviality. But only the disingenuous and ignorant could deny, after listening to Sterling's comments, that David West had gotten right to the heart of the matter: A man who is almost certainly Donald Sterling -- his own wife denounced "the racist comments made by my estranged husband" on Sunday -- has been caught telling his ex-girlfriend not to to publicly associate with black people. That same man, as West points out, is making a fortune from the labor of his predominantly black employees. So there's nothing fake at all about the outrage people feel toward Donald Sterling today. Far from it.

Less than 48 hours after David West's tweet came the news that CarMax was ending its nine-year-long sponsorship of the Clippers, and State Farm "will be taking a pause in our relationship with the organization." The two events are connected. David West's anger, expressed as it was on Twitter, is emblematic of a social media explosion that can't be ignored -- that the NBA and its sponsors have actually been forced to reckon with.

Yes, people, this is for real: When the ad money starts drying up, shit is about to go down. Donald Sterling is now in the fight for his professional life.

But why now? Everyone who seriously follows the NBA has known for decades that Donald Sterling is a horrible human being, a bigot and an abuser of women. Eight years ago, Bomani Jones wrote a piece for ESPN lamenting that a man who had settled the largest housing discrimination suit ever brought by the Department of Justice, could skate by without any sanction from the NBA. Sterling managed to be both an abominable person and the worst owner in professional sports (as measured by wins and losses) and yet his position was still untouchable. So what's so different today, that the release of one audiotape could set off an avalanche of fury so apparently meaningful? Why are a few words so much more hurtful than actual deeds?

The amplifying power of social media has to be part of the answer. Of course, it's not the whole answer. The narrative of race in America is always a touchy subtext in the NBA, a league in which the teams are 70 percent African-American, but the ownership is overwhelmingly white and male. The smoking-gun nature of the audio recording speaks more directly to our hearts than any Department of Justice legal filing ever could. And the simple fact that the NBA world had its full attention focused on the most thrilling first round of competition anybody can recall in recent NBA history has certainly helped focus the media's attention. A zillion TV cameras were already pointed at these playoffs. You want drama? You got it.

But just as "black Twitter" forced the murder of Trayvon Martin into the mainstream; and just as social media took Romney's 47 percent video and spread it instantly to an entire electorate; so to has the ubiquitous transmission of TMZ's Sterling scoop meant that the man's racism -- and, by extension, the beating heart of racial privilege in America -- was front and center in everyone's news feed and timeline.

We're still getting used to how much this really matters. The difference between now and eight years ago, when the Department of Justice was suing Sterling, or 18 years ago, when he was sued for sexual harassment, is that it is much harder to ignore the awful truth today. We're all connected. David West's thoughts on the persistence of a slave owner's mentality in the 21st century NBA are just one retweet away from your news feed.

Thank goodness for social media. Because yes, this is a good thing. Never mind all the complaining about why the NBA never did anything about Donald Sterling in the past; or how the real problem here isn't one eccentric bigot, but the deeper structure of race relations and power dynamics that are embedded, not just in the NBA, but also the NFL and major league baseball. Never mind the legal quagmire the NBA must wade through to impose meaningful sanctions on Sterling. When social media seizes upon a smoking gun to spark a serious national conversation, as was the case with Sterling's alleged remarks over the weekend, everyone must pay attention, including, ultimately, the people who pay the bills -- the CarMaxess and State Farms, the ABCs and ESPNs and TNTs.

The awful truth is that there are no degrees of separation between us and Donald Sterling in the age of social media. His disgrace is our national disgrace. But the good news is that our outrage, amplified to every nook and cranny of the media universe, actually means something.

Sterling has got to go. And if he does, then we'll have social media in part to thank.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

David West Donald Sterling Los Angeles Clippers Racism Social Media Twitter