On Tuesday, one of the most significant moments in recent NBA history took place. League Commissioner Adam Silver levied a lifetime ban on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Silver also fined Sterling $2.5 million (the maximum allowed by NBA rules) and lobbied the other team owners to vote on forcing Sterling to sell the team. It was the most forceful punishment Silver could have used, the worst in league history, and it was well deserved.
Sterling was caught on tape making profanely bigoted comments to his girlfriend, a minority, against both blacks and Hispanics. Such comments are unacceptable in any context, and in a league where 70 percent of the players are black, they are particularly shocking. Sterling’s explicit racism left Silver no choice but to lower the boom on him.
In the hours and days that followed, the collective response has been celebratory. Players, coaches, owners, and media members have lauded Silver’s swift and strong response. It was called a banner day for the NBA and a blow struck against racism. No question, Sterling deserved what he got, but the punishment he received does not resolve a deeply rooted issue. Such a laudatory response is premature.
Sterling was a known bigot to many and a miscreant for decades. He has been sued for refusing to rent properties to minorities, accused of sexual indiscretions, and overheard making racially insensitive comments in the past. What made this instance different than the lengthy rap sheet he already had? Was it a new commissioner wanting to put his distinct mark on the league? Was it that the comments were caught on tape? Was this finally just too much? Why didn’t anybody—coach, player, owner—take a stand before now?
This sort of bigotry doesn’t stand in isolation. It stands because those close to it stood by and did nothing. The refusal to act before now by the league and the other owners functioned as tacit approval of Sterling’s beliefs and actions. Such aggressive hatred is the ugly and obvious tip to a sizeable and unacknowledged iceberg. Removing it removes the obvious symptom but fails to solve the actual problem.
Sterling’s downfall shouldn’t be celebrated as the end of bigotry. It was merely the end of a bigot. Removing a tumor doesn’t mean the rest of the body is healthy, and removing a bigot doesn’t mean bigotry isn’t thriving elsewhere. The removal of either is an opportunity to examine the whole body for more signs of disease both at an organizational level and a personal one.
At his press conference, Adam Silver responded in an exemplary fashion for all of us, especially one phrase: “I apologize.” This is the beginning, a humble apology and strong action without pomp or bluster. Just as the NBA must continue to root out racism and bigotry so too must each of us. Removing a bigot is good, but only when the bigot has been removed from each of us is the work finished.