We Should Have Seen This Coming

We Should Have Seen This Coming

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 3:50 p.m. ET

When Donald Sterling's tapes first surfaced on TMZ, when one of the biggest scandals of this, or any other year, blew up on our television screens, and newspapers, and social media, there was basically one universal refrain that sounded across the sports media world.  "We should have seen this coming."  Donald Sterling's racist rant, and the ensuing public meltdown that followed, shook everybody, and surprised nobody.  Maybe we didn't expect Sterling's twisted, tortured soul to come spilling out so clearly, so completely, in a series of recordings made by a woman known only as "V".  Even in an era of made-for-television scandal, this one was almost too perfect in its ridiculousness.  But even the most casual observers of the Clippers knew that Sterling was a ticking bomb waiting to explode and create a nightmare for the NBA.

The fact of the matter is, plenty of people did see Sterling coming, years in advance.  "Sterling's Racism Should Be News."  That was the headline of an article Bomani Jones wrote in 2006, In the wake of new accusations that Sterling had refused to rent to African Americans and Latinos in his properties in Beverly Hills and Koreatown.  "Why Sterling is still around is beyond me."  Tommy Craggs wrote those words in 2009, long before the tapes, and the visor, and the interview with Anderson Cooper that ventured into theater of the absurd.    Jemele Hill was all over the issue four years ago as well, scolding not just David Stern and the league, but also the Players Association, for sticking their heads in the sand on Sterling's noxious history.

Now Ballmer is on the way in, and the Sterlings are on the way out. (Please Shelly, don't forget your "#1 Fan" bumper sticker as you exit through the turnstiles).  And as we use this time to reflect on the whole Clippers' saga, we should all make a resolution.   Let's please stop asking "Why didn't we see this coming?" and start asking a far pertinent and uncomfortable question.  Why didn't we listen to those people that did?

There's no single, simple answer to that question.  The fact of the matter is, the types of people who were victims of Sterling's prejudice, namely women, minorities, and the poor, are incredibly under-represented in the sports media world, and don't have the voice they deserve.  There's also basic, human psychology in play, and our society has shown, time and time again, a tendency to look the other way, to assume that "someone else" will right the wrong.  The "bystander effect" applies not only to individual crimes, but to our unfortunate habit of sweeping unpleasant behavior under the rug, because if things are really that bad, surely it'll be dealt with by the rest of the world.


And if we're being honest, we'd all do well to realize that the Donald Sterling story isn't just about race, and gender, and hoping a problem will go away if we ignore it long enough.  It's also about class, and our frustrating tendency to let the wealthiest and most powerful among us play by their own rules.   This country worships at the altars of fame, and fortune, and Donald Sterling had both.  Less than two months ago, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne wrote a brilliant piece on the unraveling of Sterling's Hollywood fairy-tale.   Just a few paragraphs in, you realize how easy it must have been for him to see himself as untouchable.  The man was so wrapped up in his extravagant parties, his incredible access, and the celebrity he inherited simply by employing some of the best basketball players in the world. 

Sterling's great lifestyle didn't make him a great man, but we're conditioned in this country to think that having means makes you special, and above reproach.  Men and women of wealth are seen as innovators, pioneers, risk-takers who operate on a different plane from us mere mortals.  When that illusion is punctured, and they are revealed to be as flawed, as human as anyone else, we often don't know how to proceed.  It's hardly a revelation that the well-to-do play by their own set of rules in this country, but what's not said enough is how culpable we all are in facilitating it.

Now, Steve Ballmer takes over the Clippers, and as far as anyone can tell, his most egregious crime may be subjecting the world to the "Blue Screen of Death".  But it's important to remember, as the former Microsoft CEO steps into the sports landscape, that just because he had $2 billion to pony up for the team, doesn't make him a saint.  Innovative?  Sure.  Hard working?  Undoubtedly.  Fortunate?  Incredibly.  

Infallible?  Absolutely not.

Instead of shaking our heads and asking "how did we miss" Donald Sterling, we should all resolve to place the powerful men who run America's franchises under sufficient scrutiny moving forward.  We should be demanding a fair punishment for Jim Irsay's reckless behavior, investigating how much Jimmy Haslam knew of his company's widespread fraud, and holding Rich DeVos accountable for his efforts against gay marriage.  The most powerful members of our society are the ones who deserve the most oversight, and in a country that loves sports and money in equal measure, it's time to wipe the stars from our eyes and hold the men who run our games to a higher standard.