Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Donald Sterling, Racism, and Nuance

The Donald Sterling tape is a bit of a rarity in our culture. Finally, pure proof of the racism many of us suspected still exists in sports. And it's more dramatic partly because the NBA has the best track record among the major sports in being race-blind. It's almost sure to improve the way athletes are treated by their "owners," correct? So what's wrong?

"Back to the tape: It really does have all you could want from a bigotry case study. Perfect material for a race, class, and gender sociology seminar. So much so that it begins to feel not real. Not in the sense that you’re surprised someone could think this way — not even close. But more in the sense that this whole thing — from the racial revelations to the symbolism of the players’ uniform removal — starts giving off strong vibes of a Disney race movie." --Rembert Browne, Grantland.

It's almost too convenient, the scriptedness of it all. The coverage severely lacks nuance, with a few notable exceptions (I highly recommend the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar article in Time as well, and Mark Cuban's comments on the possible ramifications of a thought witch hunt). Problematically, what worries me is that the very act of seeking nuance to this story is seen as suspect. Bryan Curtis hints at this in on Grantland:

A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word). That opinion then becomes something like a movement.

Sports blogs have come a long way. I recall the bad old days, where any act of a minority athlete that seemed "weird" was ripe for ridicule on a sports blog, with little room for nuance or cultural interpretation. High-five the blogger next to you, because they deserve it. Overall I'm pleased at how sports blogs have a more pro-labor, pro-individual understanding of sports than your typical columnist.

However, this has come at the cost of nuance in the sports blog community. The voices are more united, but they are more shrill. Alternative angles to a story are buried and shunned. Yes, your first article should be that Donald Sterling is a condemnable racist. But let's look at the other angles:

1) V. Stiviano fulfils every last stereotype of an opportunistic gold-digger. Her recordings, which may be as many as 100 hours worth of content, may not even be legal according to California law. She no doubt sold the recordings, and timed them for maximum impact. Relying on her tape as unbiased and clean testimony is hazardous. Sterling is not a first time offender and deserves much of this, but she also clearly targeted and exploited an elderly man. Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Pierce both brought this up, and deservedly so.

2) Mark Jackson tells Clippers fans to stay away, which sounds good!...until you realize it helps his team win pivotal Game 5 in LA. Magic Johnson deservedly hammers Sterling for telling Stiviano to stay away from Johnson in photos, good!...but Magic Johnson may have an ulterior motive in that this press could force Sterling to sell the team to Johnson at a lower price than face value. (For what it's worth, Magic denied interest in buying the team and also said he will not do more interviews on Sterling, which I give him credit for. But the rumors are floating.). I don't blame Mark and Magic for what they are doing, but it's important to point out the business of castigating racists can be rather lucrative. Doubt me? The LA NAACP would like a word. And finally...

3) There is a certain irony in organizations that have for years struggled to put a black face on camera or behind a computer piously criticizing a white man who employs blacks. Besides Grantland's wonderful Browne/Morris article, I struggle to think of a sports blog that has featured a black writer's take on this story. That's highly problematic. Donald Sterling is a racist...who hires black men. Sports blogs are not racist per se, but they have historically struggled to hire black writers. Thus such writers have been forced to start their own blogs to get noticed. (Full disclosure: I worked with DK Wilson at one such blog, just one example of this trend). I'll just gently and forcefully say that our whiteness is showing in coverage of this story. This is particularly true of those who are shouting at various black players, owners (Jordan), and workers to be "courageous" while offering little evidence of any personal courage in their linking, hiring, and publishing blog practices. Finally, sports blogs have mostly refrained from asking actual experts on race and business to weigh in. I understand that to some extent, such actions are more the Wall Street Journal or SI's domain. But there are definitely some voices out there that would talk to blogs, if we asked. (Popsspot has some interviews with experts on this, as an example).

I'm pleased that Sterling has been fully unmasked, but I worry about a blog culture in which asking any questions about the nuances of such stories is in itself suspect. No one wants to be seen as supporting a racist, I understand that. What worries me is that no one seems to want to be seen as thinking out loud on this topic, either.