The NBA and its Silent Majority

Billionaire Donald Sterling the owner of a team of Black men who generate $128 million a year for the LA Clippers franchise got caught on tape telling his Black girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he didn't want Black people at the games. His rant was met with disgust, shock and surprise. People were disgusted that a man who donates money to the NAACP and was slated to win an award from the organization would harbor such vicious anti-Black racism; they were shocked that he would be so brazen and clueless to cavalierly explain this to his Black girlfriend; folks were surprised that in Obama's "post racial America" this vitriol still exists.

Of course we're all disgusted by the whole situation but my frustration lies in the reactions. The Clippers still suited up and played their fourth playoff game against the warriors to a sold out crowd where seats can go for over $1000. None of this massive amount of capital would be possible without the commodified Black bodies that are traded and negotiated, sculpted then thrown away. We are the ones that make sports into cultural cornerstones. It's because of these Black bodies that sporting events are like national holidays complete with pageantry and billion dollar religious fervor.

Superstar Chris Paul, who is also the President of the NBA’s Players’ Association and the rest of the 57-25 Clippers staged only a lukewarm protest by turning their jerseys inside out which, for me, highlighted a severe disconnect in their relationship to their actual cultural and economic power. A protest that is symbolic in nature and doesn't disrupt or disturb reeks of powerlessness. Here you have a 14-man roster with 12 Black men worth multiple millions waging a silly meaningless silent protest that would probably garner sympathy, compassionate head nods and rounds on the evening news at best. When they could have walked off the court, forfeited a game that they lost by 20 points, disrupted the religious machine of sports hero worship, put a complete halt to the money they're generating for a white man who thinks they're little more than dogs. “I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give this to them,” Sterling said to his girlfriend after she reminded him that he owned a team of black men.

This tepid show of feigned dissidence is a throwback to the respectability politics of the civil rights era where Black people stood in stoic defiance while being spat on, beaten with batons, and bitten by police dogs. Obviously, Sterling's latest rant is by no means on the same level as the domestic terrorism of the 50s and 60s but it is the same racism. He is separating the labored and commodified Black body from its humanity. This is the racism that makes it ok to kill innocent Black boys because their Blackness is feared when it's not anchored to profit or an institution of entertainment. Sterling has no use for or respect for Black people unless they are making him money. Not even Magic Johnson's wealth could make him more human or insulate him from Sterling’s disgust.

Quite a few articles I've read have chalked this up to Sterling just being "a racist jerk" as if he is an anomaly in a sea of good-natured white liberal America. However, Sterling's sentiments are historically accurate. The objectification and exploitation of Black bodies for sport and entertainment is as old as slavery. I understand that the use of slave language in this context makes people uneasy but it's totally permissible when we're talking about "owning" a franchise of Black men and "trading" them to the highest bidder. I get whiffs of ancestral memory watching young Black boys at the combines being measured, tested and scrutinized for their physical acumen. Watching them being sold to a team or cut because their bodies aren’t profitable is what makes me uneasy.

As a former basketball player I understand the pressures of being a top athlete. I was groomed to be a professional basketball player from the age of 8. I played AAU league and PAL. I had a personal trainer and played ball year round. I was eventually awarded a $100,000 Division I scholarship and, hopefully, was on my to being a professional athlete. Without going into too much detail, it became painfully obvious that I was being treated different than the white players and I decided to give up the scholarship and leave the school. The decision was met with much chagrin from some family and friends, but my integrity and self worth were much more than anything they could offer me.

For millionaire basketball players, living their dream, taking care of their family and friends with obligations to fans and the league, there is much more on the line than a little familial disappointment. But that’s the whole point. The decisions they make, the stances they take can shift the power and change the discourse when done in solidarity. If they can delay a season to discuss luxury tax and salary caps, then they could have sent a stronger message than just tweets of disagreement or inside out shirts. 

We have more power than we realize but when wealthy and famous athletes shrivel at the first sign of abhorrent racial prejudice as not to upset the establishment, it sends a clear message that chasing a ball or making money is more important than our collective self worth. It recreates the illusion of powerlessness that has silenced Black people from having meaningful, action oriented dialogue about structural racism in American cultural institutions. There was definitely some missed opportunity during this whole debacle but I hope that in the coming days NBA players will expect and want more than just a slap on Sterling's wrist and lackluster apology.

~Tiq Milan.