"Keep the heat on Adam Silver!": Author Dave Zirin sounds off on Sterling, LeBron and Muhammad Ali

The Sterling situation is far from resolved -- for some pretty horrifying reasons, expert Dave Zirin tells us

Published May 9, 2014 1:24PM (EDT)

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

After a week of nearly omnipresent coverage, much of the national press has seemingly decided to move on from covering the fallout from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's recently unveiled racist rant. True, it was just last week that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Sterling would be fined $2.5 million, banned for life from NBA events, and pressured to sell the team; but despite the widespread praise Silver's decision received, and despite the Clippers having advanced to the second round of this year's playoffs, the Sterling situation remains fundamentally the same. The octogenarian billionaire is still a bigoted lothario — and he still owns the team. (Not to mention: Sterling's wife is fighting to retain her 50 percent ownership stake.)

In an effort to better understand not only how the Sterling tape is changing the NBA but also how it is that a man like Sterling was able to spend decade after decade as a welcome member of the league's ownership club, Salon spoke with Dave Zirin, sports correspondent for the Nation and author of the recently released "Brazil's Dance with the Devil," about Sterling, the Clippers' future, and how LeBron James may be changing our expectations when it comes to superstar athletes and national politics. This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What are you following right now, in terms of the Donald Sterling story? Where do you think is the most important place to push this and what are you keeping your eye on?

There are a lot of places to keep on keeping on with the Donald Sterling story. First and foremost, we have to keep the heat on Adam Silver and the NBA owners to see this thing through. And that means making sure of two things: First of all, there needs to be a full accounting for why it is Donald Sterling has been coddled for so many years by NBA ownership. Why was it not grounds for at least investigation if not dismissal when Elgin Baylor put forward his lawsuit with all sorts of damning allegations about Donald Sterling’s "plantation-like" behaviors, to use Baylor’s words? Why was it not a five alarm fire when Donald Sterling had to pay out the largest housing discrimination settlement since the passage of the Fair Housing Act? Why was it not a serious red flag the previous two instances when Donald Sterling had to give testimony about housing discrimination? Why was this not a concern of the NBA ownership fraternity? There needs to be answers for that.

The second issue that needs to be front-and-center is making sure that Donald Sterling isn’t just allowed to slide this team over to his wife, Rochelle Sterling, and then [the Clippers] just stays in his family. [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver was very tentative and very lawyerly when that question was asked during his press conference. He was asked, specifically, "Are you ruling out the Sterling family taking over the club without Donald Sterling?" and Adam Silver basically said, "We’re not ruling anything out." Now if you read the transcripts at these housing discrimination court cases, you see Rochelle Sterling was in this up to her neck. So that’s what we have to keep on pushing with Donald Sterling.

Another thing that I think we need to push [is] we gotta connect Don Sterling’s racism with the fact that Dan Snyder owns a Washington football team franchise that has a racist name. We need to ask ... how is it that Don Sterling’s racism is not okay but Dan Snyder’s racism is okay? And make no mistake about it, the Washington football team is a dictionary defined racial slur. Every single tribal council that you can name has passed resolutions saying that name should not exist. And there’s no reason why Donald Sterling should be a national crisis but for Daniel Synder it’s business as usual.

To stay on the Sterling story for a second: It seems like former NBA commissioner David Stern is just kind of skating by here.

That’s why I raised the issue of we need to know about the last 30 years. Honestly, Adam Silver has skated by too. I mean, Adam Silver — I was actually on an MSNBC show with someone who was speaking about how Adam Silver should be Time Magazine’s "Man of the Year." There’s definitely kind of an Adam Silver savior complex going on, which really needs to stop. Adam Silver did the right thing. He did the right thing because sponsors were leaving in droves, players were threatening to strike, and you had a true crisis engulfing the league during the playoffs, when the NBA really does make its money. Now, make no mistake about it, he responded the way he should have responded. But let's also not make it out as if he did this independent of other forces pushing him. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that Adam Silver has been at David Stern’s side for the last damn near 20 years. And so he should be able to answer these questions [about Sterling]. He says he doesn’t really know the answers to these questions. Maybe that’s true. But if that’s true, then we need to get David Stern to answer these questions. But there needs to be an honest accounting of why it is that Donald Sterling was coddled for so long.

What do you think is the reason behind Sterling's coddling, if you had to guess?

I don’t really have to guess; I could give you some pretty concrete reasons why. First of all, Donald Sterling was very, very close friends, social friends, with one of the most powerful owners in the NBA: Dr. Jerry Buss, [former] owner of the [Los Angeles] Lakers. Jerry Buss just passed away. So that’s one reason. But the other reason is that owners just don’t like having their behavior policed. I mean, look at the NFL right now — you have one owner, Jimmy Irsay, who was pulled over drunk driving. His friends say he has serious addiction issues. Nothing from the NFL, even though he’s driving a car under the influence [and] could have killed somebody. Also, Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, he’s been indicted by the feds. Not a word from the NFL…

I’m talking about personal behavior. If you wanna go political, look at some of the shadowy, disturbing right-wing groups that have been supported over the years by Dick Devos, the owner of the Orlando Magic. Or the anti-gay initiatives supported by Clay Bennet and Aubrey McClendon, the owners of the Oklahoma City Thunder. So this ... explains why Donald Sterling was protected for so long, and it also explains why [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban expressed public discomfort with banning Donald Sterling, because he said it was a “slippery slope.” Because these are people who frankly feel they live above sanction. And I think this is one of the reasons why so many people have this Adam Silver savior complex is because we’re so not used to billionaires being held accountable for anything, whether it’s the financial crisis or anything else. And so here it’s like, finally, someone’s being held accountable, and people are over the moon happy instead of looking at some of these issues a little bit closer — particularly the issues around Donald Sterling’s slumlord activities and how little the NBA seemed to care about that.

Switching gears a bit, what is your take on LeBron James as a political figure? What I'm thinking about, in particular, is not only his exceptionally strongly worded initial response to the Sterling tape, but also his decision a few years ago to wear a hoodie as an act of solidarity with those organizing to have George Zimmerman charged for killing Trayvon Martin. I think of those two moves and I contrast them with Michael Jordan's famous "Republicans buy sneakers too" remark, and the difference is pretty stark.

Early in his career, LeBron James made two public statements that I think say a great deal. He said his goal was to be a global icon like Muhammad Ali, and his goal was to be the richest athlete in the world. Now those are two fine goals, but they’re not necessarily goals that walk together on and on. Because the reason why Muhammad Ali is a global icon, the reason why I could go into a market in Tierra Del Fuego today and buy a Muhammad Ali teeshirt ... is because of what Muhammad Ali sacrificed. Not because he made money, but because he sacrificed his job, his station. He risked his freedom, and not to mention, millions of dollars, because he believed in a political principle, and he believed in standing up for both racial justice and [against] the war in Vietnam.

I think LeBron James has that duality in his head at all times, that he wants to be more than an athlete, and he also wants to be a brand and a global icon. So you see him do things that, if you want to be a brand, [are] not necessarily good for your brand. Because he gives a crap. And so when James does things like write slogans about Trayvon Martin on his shoes, or pose with a hoodie about George Zimmerman being arrested, when he does things like that, I think it comes from a very genuine place, and that’s the place of somebody who grew up in Akron, Ohio, at one point living in a car with his mother. Michael Jordan grew up in a very stable home in North Carolina. Two-parent home, what one would call middle- to working-class... That wasn’t a stability James had. And you do get the impression from him that he wants to do more than just sell us things with corporate logos on them.

I’ll tell you the other recent LeBron James moment which I found really interesting: The NBA Players Association has been in a great deal of crisis [and] he expressed interest, before [Clippers star] Chris Paul stepped forward, in being the new president of the National Basketball Players Association. That’s a stunning thing. That’s not what you do if you want to be a brand. That’s not what you do if you want to be the richest athlete in the world. And that shows that he cares about the collective, not just about himself. Frankly I have a lot of respect for what he said right when the Sterling controversy broke [and] what he did about Trayvon Martin. He was once asked early in his career if there was anybody he’d like to dunk on, who would it be? He said George W. Bush.

Wow. I didn’t know that.

I mean, that’s a little bit different than saying “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

So is this a story about James and Jordan being different people, or is it something that has more to do with a different political climate in America? Thinking back to Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, other stars who weren't afraid to be political figures as well, is Jordan the anomaly?

No. I mean, if anything Jordan spawned a whole generation of athletes who saw making money and turning yourself into a brand, as a way to keep score against your peers ... A professional basketball player once said to me, “We’re all basically just Jordan’s children.” He was expressing his own frustration about athletes not being more political.

I think you always have to look at what’s happening in the bigger world in explaining why athletes are or aren’t more political. That’s always the starting point. I always say to people, you have to know that the 1960s created Muhammad Ali just as much as Muhammad Ali turned around and shaped the 1960s, and if the 60s had been just like any other decade, Muhammad Ali would have been Cassius Clay, someone whose dream in life was to bring the showmanship of professional wrestling into boxing. The times made him political and then he shaped those times.

Michael Jordan came of age in a very different era: 1980s, 1990s, globalization, brand expansion, all of these things. And I think the time we’re living in now is very different ... Imagine if an athlete today wouldn’t take on a segregationist like [former North Carolina Sen.] Jesse Helms when asked and said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” I mean, there would be Twitter fights, all sorts of communication about that. Back [when Jordan said that], 1990, you’re talking about a situation where only a very small group of opinion makers dominated in sports, and they gave him a pass on that, and they really controlled mass consumption of political opinions about sports. And these sports columnists, there were usually one or two in every city who had the most power, they changed about as often as popes. They would hold onto those jobs forever.

We’ve talked a lot about LeBron and Sterling, but this wasn’t just a "LeBron says something and the league reacts" story. In general, the players in the league felt very strongly about this. The way that athlete told you that they’re the children of Jordan, do you think there’s a chance of a new generation of athletes — especially in the NBA — following LeBron’s lead?

Honestly, I think the times we’re living in now are just less vertically organized. I think the "children of Jordan" thing partly happened because his cultural influence was so profound and so he became a touchstone for everyone that followed. I think the generation of athletes now, it’s more like they’re making their own way, they’re feeling their own way around ... So it’s less that they’re going to be "children of LeBron" and more that they’re going to be brothers with LeBron ... It’s more like you take what you think makes sense, you discard what doesn’t, and you make your own life, and you discover your own voice. I think that’s more of the state of today’s athlete.

Do you think reaching the actual completion of this Sterling saga is going to be harder than people are thinking right now, because there’s such unanimous agreement that what he said was abhorrent? There's an assumption that to some degree the story is over now, but will it really be so easy to kick Sterling out of the league?

You only need 23 out of 30 owners to make this happen, to basically have the NBA sell the team for Donald Sterling. That’s what you need. The problem is, I’ve heard a bunch of legal experts say ... what [Sterling] can do is say, "This violates anti-trust" and that the league's not going to get as good a price for the team than would be the case if he was the owner. There’s a lot of legal cards he could pull; he’s highly litigious ... You’re talking about the longest-tenured owner in the NBA. He knows where a lot of the bodies are buried. If he wants to burn down the village, go down with the ship, he might make every effort to do so. And frankly, that’s why I think Adam Silver’s being cagey about how maybe Donald Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, could take control of the team. [Silver] may believe that to be a middle-ground deal that he could strike with Sterling. "You’re not the owner anymore, but it stays in your family." But like I said before, given Rochelle Sterling’s role in some of the housing discrimination lawsuits, it would be a damn shame if that’s the end result of all this.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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