Donald Sterling Thinks He Owns His Players; He's Not Alone

Whatever else you say about Donald Sterling, give him this: the man has defeated criticism. There is no way to say anything about this spectacular American grotesque that doesn't amount to congratulating anyone who happens to be less racist than he is for being less racist than Donald Sterling. So, good work, nearly everyone.

The main effect of Sterling's self-immolation should be to remind everyone that the NBA hierarchy, which is constantly reminding everyone how enlightened it is, has spent decades tolerating a man who made a fortune terrorizing ordinary working people, his outrageous behavior rising to the level of a national scandal only when he was caught on tape insulting Magic Johnson. A subsidiary effect, though, might be to remind everyone of why that is. It's right there on the tape, in his description of his Los Angeles Clippers:

I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have— Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

Sterling isn't just lauding his own generosity out of narcissism here; he clearly sees it as the foundation of his economic relationship with his players. He's the selfless patron whose magnanimity allows them to express themselves through the game, freed from any worldly concerns. Players are mere passers-through, easily replaced minor characters in an ongoing drama in which he, along with his fellow owners, plays a central, deciding role. There's us and there's them, and Sterling has always been on the right side of that divide. This is why no one ever did anything about him.


It's worth thinking about how ridiculous this is. A man whose $12.5 million investment in the Clippers is now worth 50 times that due entirely to the efforts of men much better than him imagines that his oligarchic wealth is, rather than freak luck, a just reward for adventurous risk-taking. As he tells the story, old men who interpose themselves between ballplayers and the public and skim off billions of dollars are the true heroes of sports history. (Never mind the various ways the already-rich men who own sports franchises are cosseted from risk, and never mind the many, many advantages conferred on them by the tax code, by the taxpayers who pay for their stadiums, by the current disposition of anti-trust law, and so on.) Somewhere in Sterling's diseased mind is a perfect crystallization of America's triumphal brand of capitalism.

As easy as his personal hideousness makes it to overlook, though, the issue isn't that Sterling thinks this way, or even that he was caught saying so. It's that he was doing nothing more than clearly expressing the ideology of his class. Sterling isn't some anomaly; he's the perfect representative of his type.

I make the game is a self-interested opponent of NCAA pay-for-play claiming that fans come out to support the school rather than to watch the players, as if 110,000 people would come out to the Big House every other week to watch the best English students Michigan has to offer try their hardest on the gridiron. It's Mike Krzyzewski pacing the sidelines of the Coach K Court, or Northwestern distributing a Q&A to players ahead of a vote on unionization, reminding them how easily they could be replaced with scab labor.

It's MLB forcing the cancellation of a World Series in a desperate attempt to get players to give them more money, or suborning the Internal Revenue Service to investigate its own players, or assigning an owner the task of investigating—and writing an impartial report on—drug use in the game, or convening panels of insiders who managed to vote the useless Bowie Kuhn into the Hall of Fame while keeping Marvin Miller out.

It's the NFL crushing the players' union so thoroughly that owners don't even have to guarantee contracts, or ruining three weeks of games in order to demonstrate fealty to a certain idea of neoliberalism, or actively conspiring to ignore all the evidence of the horrific neurological impact of playing football.

It's the NHL canceling an entire season, or the UFC guaranteeing an athlete $4,000 to fight on a card that drew a $12.5 million gate while its president boasts "We built this," or the NBA locking out its own players because they were taking slightly more than half of revenue they are principally responsible for generating. It's the philosophical underpinning of every sports labor dispute ever, and the single notion uniting the generally various and fractious management and ownership class. It's the core belief that the money and the power are rightly theirs, and that players' food, and clothes, and cars, and houses are all gifts, freely given.

When athletes talk about sports as a plantation, this is what they mean. That a player makes millions doesn't make it any less true that he's making a fraction of what he's worth, or that he's being essentially stolen from by a system designed to divert wealth from those who create it to those who already have it, and it doesn't make it any less galling to realize that this wealth is going to people who don't even realize that they represent nothing more than a tax levied on useful, productive members of society.

The shame of this is that Sterling has made it so easy to write him off as uniquely pathological, and so made himself useful even on the way out. He'll go soon—NBA owners will decide that he's too damaging to their brand, or his heart will give out, or whatever—and this whole ugly incident will be profitably portrayed as the dying gasp of an old league and an old way of thinking. Whichever financial engineer or technologist replaces him will be no different in the essentials, but much better about keeping up appearances. He'll know that it's good not to be too honest, that the best thing to do with stolen money is to quietly enjoy it, and that the best thing about the question of who makes the game is that if you're on the right side of it, you don't even really have to ask.

Photo via AP