The real problem with Donald Sterling

The Clippers, and other sports teams, should be publicly owned

May 4, 2014 2:00AM ET
Donald Sterling in 2003
Robert Mora / Getty Images

OK, we get it: Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a horrible racist and everyone hates him. As they should.

After public pressure built following TMZ’s release of a recorded conversation between Sterling and his then-girlfriend — in which he berated her for posting photographs with African-Americans on Instagram — the NBA moved forcefully. New Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from attending games and fined him $2.5 million. Owners will vote soon on whether to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, as star players such as LeBron James and top league brass have urged them to do.

The whole ordeal couldn’t have happened to a worse person. As Dave Zirin and others have reported, Sterling has a long history of racism. But less remarked upon than his odious views — though far more scandalous — were his career history and social position. In this he has more in common with other NBA owners, and with the owner class as a whole, than is generally accepted.

A powerful person

Sterling made his fortune in real estate by speculating on housing and managing urban slums. Manipulating working-class access to shelter, a right of any human being, was his ticket to success. Sterling’s African-American tenants bore the brunt of the abuse. Court documents (cited by Zirin) from a class-action case for which he was forced to pay $5 million tell some of the story:

“Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.”

Yet it didn’t take a stroke or decades of outright theft and bullying for Sterling to get censured by the NBA, it took a leaked phone call. Under the pressure of social and cultural advance, racism has become more subtle. It’s more important than ever to remember that much of the hardship that minorities, especially African-Americans, face in America is less a matter of representation than of corporate exploitation and state harassment. 

Sports in particular is an area where public ownership and democratization seem eminently reasonable to many Americans.

In other words, the problem isn’t that Donald Sterling is a vile racist who happens to be a powerful individual — it’s that he is a powerful person. The real crime is his incredible ability to influence the life outcomes of people — from the tenants in his housing complexes to the employees of the Clippers to even that team’s fans, who invest so much passion and energy into a privately owned enterprise.

Although no one defends Sterling’s comments, it’s telling that people from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to Slate’s Mike Pesca still defend his property rights. Few are willing to face up to the real problem posed by Sterling: the ownership that gives him power in the first place. His team deserves to be expropriated because he’s an owner, and for no other reason. The fact that he’s a scumbag just makes it an even easier sell.

Community ownership

Sports in particular is an area where public ownership and democratization seem eminently reasonable to many Americans. Even Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich thinks the Clippers should be “sold to the people” and touts the example of the Green Bay Packers, an iconic football franchise owned directly by the community.

Teams often receive a combination of tax breaks and subsidies to keep them from leaving to more welcoming cities. (Sterling himself took the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles in the early 1980s.) Arenas and stadiums have public transportation infrastructure built for them by taxpayers; we all share in the collective joy when our team wins, but we’re gouged by hefty premium cable bills, rising ticket prices and ridiculous concession prices to see it happen.

Yet the spoils of victory and the wealth extracted from our passion and from the effort of players, not all of whom are making millions, are going to owners. Not just the profits themselves, though that’s certainly happening too. Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, but they’re now valued at $575 million. But, more important, power over the direction of teams that generations of citizens have identified with are in the hands of private individuals, many of whom are mean-spirited buffoons.

The alternative is simple: Make fans limited stockholders of municipally owned franchises. They would gain voting rights, along with active players, but fans wouldn’t be investing for profit, they’d be investing to have a stake in their team’s future. Fan-owners can elect a management to run the franchise, with restrictions in place keeping teams accountable to local government and the needs of the communities in which they are embedded.

Ticket prices would fall, players would be more secure in their rights to collectively bargain and perform in safe working conditions, and new arenas would be built to get as many people comfortably inside as possible. There would be no more reducing capacity by privileging profit-making luxury boxes over cheap seats with great sightlines. Revenue would be generated to sustain and reproduce franchises, not to create wealth for a few.

Some Clippers fans are at work advocating something similar now. The model just might go over well enough to apply to the rest of society before long.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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