Racism is a hot topic in our sports nation these days with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and now Hawks owner Bruce Levenson and GM Danny Ferry coming under fire for racist remarks. As a black businesswoman myself, I personally find Donald Sterling and Danny Ferry’s comments and prejudices deplorable, while I do not find Levenson’s words to be nearly as reprehensible as the others’. The difference? Both Sterling and Ferry made overwhelmingly derogatory statements that insulted and devalued blacks as a whole while also making egregious and erroneous attacks on two exemplary members of the black community. For Donald Sterling to say that Magic Johnson “doesn’t do anything” for black people–a man who has single-handedly transformed black communities and created jobs to propel them forward through real estate investments and movie theater and restaurant ownership– is simply ignorant. Danny Ferry was equally as ignorant, completely degrading African culture and slandering the character of a man who has not been associated with troublemaking or wrongdoing and whose foundation has impacted the lives of children on three different continents.
Levenson, on the other hand, was coming from a very different place. While his comments certainly did reflect stereotypes and generalizations that can also be labeled “ignorant,” his intention was to diagnose the lack of diversity in Phillips Arena. Strictly business, I dare say. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it this way:
“Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in the seats. In the e-mail, addressed to Hawks president Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations), the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music and the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90 percent blacks, kiss cam focus on black fans and time-out contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans. … Seems reasonable to ask those questions. Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business.”
Like Kareem, I do not absolve Levenson’s assumptions; however, as a black businesswoman I completely understand Levenson’s intention and would rather see him stay than Ferry. Honestly, I more so question his intention of “turning himself in” than his prejudices; seems more like an exit strategy to me… But I digress.
The real deal is this: racism has never been “over” and there is no such thing as a “post-racial society.” Though more subtle now than in the days of the Negro Leagues and The Black Fives, racism persists in sports despite overwhelming minority representation in professional leagues. In fact, the 2013 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) reported that “African-Americans comprised 76.3 percent of all NBA players. Eighty-one percent of players were players of color.” The same organization reported 66.3% African American players in the NFL and 52.3% players of color in MLS. Only 8.3% of players on 2014 MLB opening day rosters were African American, an issue that the Commissioner of Baseball is working to address with his On-Field Diversity Task force. NHL numbers are far fewer, though interest in the game among minorities–as both fans and players– seems to be climbing.
Present-day racism in sport–and in life in general, actually– comes most often in the form of denied opportunities for people of color. Meaning, instead of racial slurs, hate crimes, segregated facilities and other blatant expressions of oppression that were in abundance during the Civil Rights Era, our fight is now against discriminatory and/or exclusive hiring practices that usurp minority candidates’ ability to attain positions of leadership at the executive level and other micro-aggressions that people of color are battered with daily. The NFL’s Rooney Rule was a start that has led to the hiring of 17 African-American and Latino head coached and general managers across the league since its establishment in 2003. FIFA has launched a global campaign to combat this on its fields of play, inspiring others to do so in their communities as well. Neither of these are by any means blanket solutions; however, if they work, they work and are definitely good places to start. Especially since it would be obviously impossible to change the biases and prejudices every individual in this industry–and the world– has been brought up with, spoken or unspoken, conscious or subconscious.
At the end of the day, there is no place for racism is sport or society at large. It is not only flat-out wrong, but it does our entire global community a disservice by stifling the talents, perspectives and creativity that members of our worldwide community possess. Let all these incidents be a lesson: we can, and must, do better.