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Capitalism's bad sports

John Bell

May 16, 2014

Well, we can sleep better tonight. The mega-profits of professional major league sports have been defended. Donald Sterling, billionaire owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers and sexist, racist jerk, has been shunned by the league’s other owners. Problem solved; move along everybody, nothing to see here.
Not so fast say observers like NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking. All over the latest in a long line of rich white celebrities to come out of the racist closet. “What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise.”
It would come as no surprise to racialized low-income tenants of Sterling’s California real estate holdings. Sterling has been repeatedly been convicted and fined for a history of discriminatory and racist practices as a landlord. With 20/20 hindsight, following the release of the tape featuring Sterling’s vile, racist rants, numerous observers have cited his damning legal history. But where were these sports writers when the Clippers owner was refusing to rent to Latinos or publicly stating that Afro-American tenants “smell and attract vermin”? Sports writers seldom bite the hand that feeds them.
One of a tiny handful who buck that trend is left-wing sports writer Dave Zirin. In 2009 Zirin wrote a column in the Nation magazine outlining Sterling’s history of convictions and multi-million dollar fines for racist practices. He devotes a chapter to Sterling in his 2010 book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.
Not content to condemn Sterling, Zirin argues that the owners and officials who run the NBA are equally culpable. In a recent interview with radio’s Democracy Now he said: “The warning signs of Donald Sterling's racism, egregious behavior, and misogyny go back more than a decade–and the league has coddled him. There is a racism culture in the ownership ranks of the NBA. ... In other words, not every owner is as outwardly racist as Donald Sterling, but for decades they have chosen to enable him and look the other way.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had to act quickly to put an end to the story before a players revolt. The Golden State Warriors, in the midst of a playoff series against the Clippers, had planned to walk out before the game if nothing was done. The franchise owners who enabled sterling for decades are now forcing him to sell the Clippers, banning him from attending any NBA event and fining him $2.5 million. 
Their response was designed to paint Sterling as a lone gunman, an owner who had gone rogue. It was forced by a growing revolt among NBA players, who were beginning to raise flags about a culture of racism throughout their sport. And it was done out of fear of a wider backlash against racism in other walks of life.
As Zirin writes: “If this ‘Donald Sterling moment’ is going to matter, it will be because we recognize that racism is not merely about someone saying vile things about Magic Johnson but the power this racist exercised over both his team and the thousands of residents in Los Angeles County who had to live in his residential complexes.”
Let’s use this moment to remember that racism is not restricted to one owner, one franchise or one sport. There is a growing fight against racist team names and logos in major league baseball and football. Zirin reserves the title of the worst owner in pro sports for Dan Snyder, owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Snyder is too sly to be caught making overt racist and misogynist statements on tape, but his continued defence of that most offensive team name reveals the undercurrent of “polite” racism that pervades both sport and capitalist society at large.
Racist names and logos are not just relics of the past–just a year ago owners of a new Ottawa franchise in the Canadian Basketball League didn’t think there was a problem calling their team the TomaHawks. Remember, that was in midst of the Idle No More protests.
You don’t have to look far to find racism in sports–Spanish football louts tossing bananas at Black players for instance–but sport is only a reflection of the racism throughout society. 
For Capitalism, from its inception in the African slave trade and genocide of North America’s first people, racism is essential, not an option. Just as you cannot have capitalism without imperialism, capitalism without racism is impossible.
But if capitalism depends on racism to keep us fighting among ourselves, it also forces us to overcome racism to defend our common interests.
Just today I am reading about the Cowboy Indian Alliance coming together in the US to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. In New Brunswick, First Nations people are joining with their settler neighbours to oppose fracking.
Donald Sterling may be stripped of ownership of his sport franchise, but he remains a charter ember of the 1 %, a billionaire slum landlord made rich off the backs of the racialized communities he despises. The system can afford to sacrifice one high profile, loose-lipped bigot to save itself.
It is time we stopped playing their game, and put an end to the system that lifts up bad sports like Donald Sterling in the first place.
If you like this article, register for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include “Today’s resistance to the genocide of Indigenous people,” “Racism, sexism and the war on women,” and “Global resistance to imperialism.”

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