Sports and race could not have more opposite positions in our country today. One of them is the catalyst of 24-hour news coverage; the other people try to avoid touching with a 10-foot pole.
But the summer of 2014 was bookended by two racially-fueled conflicts in sports, and all it demonstrated was that issues concerning race relations are every bit as subjective as they are complex.
It all began with the scandal surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught on a recording claiming he did not want African American fans attending his team’s games with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano. Sterling’s Clippers—whose head coach and star point guard are both black—nearly boycotted a playoff game as a result, and a chorus of voices from around the league called for his removal as an NBA owner.
Newly-minted NBA Commissioner and Duke alum Adam Silver made an unprecedented decision when he banned Sterling from the league for life four days later. In a move that likely overstepped the commissioner’s powers as granted by the league’s constitution, Silver’s decisive move garnered widespread support from across the sporting world.
There is no question that Sterling does not deserve to be an NBA owner, but Silver didn’t need to ban him from the league in order to achieve those ends. Silver was confident—and rightfully so—that the league’s owners would vote Sterling out of power by a three-fourths margin. With sponsors withdrawing millions of dollars of revenue from the Clippers each day and threatening to do so with other teams should Sterling stay in the league, the NBA’s owners would have almost certainly shown Sterling the door—if nothing else to remain on the right side of history.
Had the league’s owners been allowed to vote, the same result would have been met and Sterling would likely have received a fraction of the $2 billion pricetag his wife negotiated with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Silver’s swift and decisive action was deemed a necessary one from a business standpoint. This isn’t to say that Silver’s actions weren’t rooted in his morals, which I believe they were, but money talks—and when you’re the commissioner of a multi-billion dollar league, sometimes money has to shout.
According to the league’s 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card, 76.3 percent of players and 43.3 percent of head coaches in the NBA are African American. On the day the Sterling ban came down, statistics guru Nate Silver projected that 31.4 percent of NBA fans are African American. Ultimately, a swift ending—constitutionally acceptable or not—was better than allowing the saga to drag out and risking further alienation of a significant portion of the league’s employees and fan base.
Alienating a fan base is not something that concerns Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Snyder came under fire this summer for refusing to change his team’s name—which has existed since 1933 and is considered a racial slur against Native Americans.
But there are only a handful of Native American players in the NFL. The league’s office has just one Native American employee, according to its 2013 Gender and Race Report Card. The 2010 U.S. Census listed Native Americans as 1.7 percent of the country’s population, which means that the demographic makes up an even smaller portion of the NFL’s fan base.
I spent a weekend at Redskins training camp this summer to try and understand why Washington fans still chanted their team’s name with such fervor. It didn’t take me long to find the answer—all I had to do was look around.
Market research from Experian Simmons conducted before last year’s Super Bowl indicates that 83 percent of NFL fans are white. It’s pretty easy to not be offended by a racial slur when you aren’t the one being targeted.
If Washington’s NFL team had a name that was instead a racial slur toward whites, blacks, Asians or Hispanics, we would definitely be having a different conversation. Until Goodell has significant business interests to protect like Silver did, he will not be forced to make the same unprecedented decision.
Remember this: Sterling was kicked out of the NBA for his racist ideals, but never actually uttered a racial slur on that recording. Snyder has deluded himself into believing that his team’s name is a badge of pride and the ownership of his team has never been in question.
The sad part of this situation is that the NFL’s interest continues to grow each and every year—even when ignoring overt racism by a team representing our nation’s capital. The league’s branding is as close to indestructible as it gets. Even fans that are outraged by Washington’s name will still turn on their TVs to watch the NFL every Sunday.
If there was an easy solution to racial tensions, someone would have figured it out by now. Even as our nation embraces diversity in ways it never would have dreamed of when Washington named its team nearly 80 years ago, today’s issues are so far from black and white.
What the summer of 2014 left us with are two events on completely divergent paths. One ended with the intervention of the league’s commissioner in a move that was debatably necessary—the other rages on because the league’s commissioner stands idly by when he should intervene.
Maybe it’s time for Adam Silver to give Roger Goodell a call.