A Sterling Example

Every so often we are reminded why the United States is a special place. Even though we can't seem to agree that it is a bad idea to allow people to walk around public places armed to the hilt, we stand up against terrorists who try to intimidate us by blowing up the finish line at the Boston Marathon. We have trouble agreeing that women should have control over their own bodies when it comes to reproduction, but increasingly we have recognized the right of marriage equality. The Supreme Court keeps degrading our democracy by allowing wealthy autocrats to purchase favors from politicians with campaign contributions, but we protect the right of people of all faiths (or no faith) to practice as they wish. Every so often, we take a stand against intolerance and bigotry that should make us all proud.

America's profile is reflected in the games we play. As Columbia professor Jacques Barzun wrote 60 years ago: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." This week it is basketball that best reflects the good that is America. Donald Sterling, the current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, wore his racism on his sleeve in a manner that caused revulsion across the land. Some may rightfully complain about why the NBA did not take action when Sterling's discriminatory disposition was demonstrated as part of his slumlord activity, but I think it is better to applaud the swift and sure response of the new NBA Commissioner to the revelation that Sterling apparently only wanted black folks to play for him, and not share his company or the company of his friends.

No one came to Sterling's defense, at least publicly. There was a time in the not too distant past when open and public expressions of racism were tolerated. In the very least, today those who share Sterling's disdain for persons of color must do so very privately. You can no longer state your deeply held beliefs in the inferiority of other human beings.

That does not mean, regretfully, that we have abolished racism. Even after we have twice elected a person of color as our president, those who find that fact impossible to accept have found many ways to thwart his best efforts. While some might simply share different views about achieving common goals, some significant cohort of the president's opponents find the source of their incessant harping in their deeply held, if generally unexpressed, hatred of a black man leading a mostly white nation.

That is why the Sterling example is so important. Sports have been a beacon of hope for many. Once the artificial barriers were removed that excluded persons of color from participating, something approaching a meritocracy took its place, but it took a long time coming. Black athletes still had to be much better than white athletes in order to find a place on the team, but once they showed what they could do on the field or court, their color began to recede from view.

As a result of his intolerable and unacceptable prejudices, Mr. Sterling forfeited his right to participate as an owner in the truly international pastime of basketball. A game conceived in 1891 by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith, in Springfield, Massachusetts, to keep his students active over the long New England winter has become a symbol of sports universality. Over 90 athletes from 40 countries play in the NBA in a league where the greatest stars are the people Sterling just could not countenance.

Attention will now turn to the issue of how the NBA owners can force Sterling to sell his franchise. It might not be much of a struggle considering the fact that the offender has not spoken up in his own defense, although his previous record of litigation suggests otherwise. As with many historical cases of prejudice, simple economics might be sufficient to overcome intolerance. The price might be so advantageous that even a billionaire will find retirement more palatable than a fight.

In any case, the Sterling example will stand as a great object lesson to those who share his views. We no longer find you and your views acceptable. And we will not be moved.