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The National Basketball Association this weekend launched an investigation into racist remarks allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling. During Sunday’s first round playoff match-up against the Golden State Warriors, Clippers players engaged in silent protest against the team’s ownership. Kojo talks with former NBA player Etan Thomas about race and politics in professional basketball, where three quarters of the players are black, but the ownership remains mostly white.
- Etan Thomas Former NBA player, co-host "Edge of Sports Radio"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how Greek life is affecting campus culture at universities across the country, for good and bad. But first, the racial controversy upending the small club of men and women who own professional sports franchises in America.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe NBA playoffs are underway, but the league is now consumed with investigating audio posted to the internet this weekend that allegedly includes the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, telling a young female friend that he doesn't want her publicly associating with black people.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISterling, who has been sued in the past over accusations of racial discrimination, owns a team in a league comprised overwhelmingly of black players. And the controversy over his alleged remarks is throwing out into the open questions about whether the current dynamics of power and race in professional basketball are unsustainable. And whether the other owners in the league have simply tolerated the system where racism is allowed to exist. Joining us by phone to discuss this is Etan Thomas. He is a former professional basketball player who played for more than a decade in the NBA.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA career sum of which was spent with the Washington Wizards. He's an activist, writer and poet. He'll soon be co-hosting a radio program for WPFW Radio here in Washington with the journalist Dave Zirin. Etan Thomas joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.
MR. ETAN THOMASThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou wrote for The Huffington Post this weekend that you believe Donald Sterling has had a history of racism that's been documented for some time, that's gone unchecked. What would you say has made it possible for that history to go unchecked.
THOMASWell, if I had to point a finger, it would have to be David Stern. I mean, this has been well documented. He was sued by the Department of Justice, he had a discrimination suit that he settled to the point, to the tune of 2.7 million with. And he admitted, you know, in his eyes, he said he did nothing wrong. But he just wanted to try to make it go away. I mean, there's such a laundry list of different things that he has gone through in dealing with racism and discrimination. And that has gone unchecked and he has been allowed to do that. So, you know, it's good that something is gonna be done now, because they're gonna force his hand.
THOMASAnd that's the -- people react to money. That's what people react to. And now that you have people like State Farm pulling their sponsorship from the Clippers organization, that shows that it is actually going to be bad for business. So, it's gonna force Adam Silver's hand to make him have to do something, because nobody wants to lose money.
THOMASAnd, you know, it's something that the players are in a outrage. You have everybody from Michael Jordan to Lil' Wayne to Snoop to everybody, to the President of the United States, all outraged about this tape. But this is not something that is new with him. This has been going on for a long time. He just got caught on tape saying it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join the conversation. If you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Etan Thomas, you played for more than a decade in the NBA. Were you close to anyone who played for the Clippers, and I know that people who play in the NBA talk to one another about a lot of things. You said in your piece in the Huffington Post, he is who we thought he was. Has there been word among players for a long time that this is the kind of person that Donald Sterling is?
THOMASBut it's more than word. That's what I'm saying. It's documented.
THOMASElgin Baylor had a lawsuit against him.
NNAMDIOf course, Elgin Baylor is a Washington legend.
THOMASYes. He was a Washington legend. And he has it in his documented -- well documented statement, he tells stories about what would actually go on with Sterling. I mean, this is nothing new. Anybody that's been involved in the NBA or watching -- people have been writing about this for a long time. It's just, unfortunately, been allowed.
NNAMDIYou played for three different teams in the NBA. You played with dozens of teammates, who all had different experiences in the league. How would you describe what you felt, while you were playing, about how the dynamics of power and race fit into the entire enterprise known as the NBA?
THOMASWell, that's the thing. The entire enterprise of the NBA and what the NBA has been trying to do is become this big global organization where they bring different cultures, bring different nationalities to everything together with NBA Cares and what they pride themselves on. And that's the whole thing of this actual tape, which is definitely ugly and disgusting, is in a direct contrast of that. So, you know, there's something that has to be done immediately, and players are like waiting. The longer that this takes for the whatever due process that Commissioner Adam Silver wants to go through in order to be able to make his next move, it has to be made very quickly.
THOMASBecause it's gonna go -- get worse and worse. You know, this is now being brought to the forefront, and it's dominating the headlines. The headlines of a playoffs that were great. Each series has been going great. They've been exciting. You have all this amazing stuff happening. And now, this is dominating it. So, it would behoove them to please put this to rest as quickly as possible with a sufficient punishment. Not a little slap on the wrist, not a little something like that, but a sufficient punishment, which is -- which needs to be that they rid him from his position.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're describing the fallout from the remarks made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling. Our guest is Etan Thomas, former basketball player who played for more than a decade in the NBA, much of that time with the Washington Wizards. Etan is also an activist, writer and poet. He'll soon be co-hosting a radio program for WPFW Radio in Washington with our friend, the journalist Dave Zirin. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Etan Thomas, to what degree do you think the players have leverage to force changes here?
NNAMDIOnly the owners have the power to pressure Sterling into selling the franchise. The commissioner, at the end of the day, works for the owners as well. What would it take for the players themselves to force some kind of action here?
THOMASWell, if you -- right now, the Players Association is going through a shift of power, so there's no executive director. There's no Billy Hunter right now. So, Kevin Johnson is speaking on behalf of the Players Association.
NNAMDIFormer NBA All Star, now Mayor of Sacramento. Yeah.
THOMASRight. Now, Chris Paul is the president right now. So, he's the new Derek Fisher. So, right now, everything is very calculated in their moves. They're not just reacting. I know a lot of people wanted them to have a stronger statement than they did yesterday at the game, which they turned their jerseys inside out and they threw them on the floor. Now, what they're doing is they're waiting to give Adam Silver his chance of his due diligence, or his due process, before they have further action.
THOMASBut they've made it very clear that they want something to be done or else. So, I think the players are definitely having a strong vocal and demonstrative message here, that they're going to send, that this will not be tolerated. But I think collectively, now you're starting to get a few NBA CEO's, not just Michael Jordan to come out and speak out, which is better now, because, you know, you -- I was like, wait, wait, Michael Jordan is the only one who's gonna say something about this?
THOMASYou know, but now you're getting some more -- the more come and more make tweets and more make statements that this is something that is, you know, despicable and has no part of the NBA. Which is a good thing, but you need all of that collectively to really force Adam Silver's hand to do what he needs to do.
NNAMDIAnd what I'm hearing from Kevin Johnson, what I'm hearing from you, is that the players seem to feel that if the consequence of this action, if Adam Silver, the commissioner, does not do something that in their minds is appropriate to address this situation, this can go farther than that.
THOMASNo, not that it could. It will. And they've been very, very clear about that. But right now, they're giving him the respect of the due process, and that's what Adam Silver -- you know, this is Adam Silver's defining moment. This is him just coming into being the commissioner, taking over for David Stern. And this is the big major issue that he's had to -- the first major issue that he's had to really deal with. So, the way that he handles this is gonna dictate how the relationship between the players and him are gonna go on from here.
THOMASNow, the reason why the players wanted to be able to give him that chance of being able to go through due process is because this is the start of a whole new relationship. You know, because everybody also had the same reaction, of how ugly and disgusting this actually was once they heard it. But now it's OK, let's see what's going to be done about it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Reed in Bethesda, Maryland. Reed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REEDHi, I listened to about a ten minute transcribed clip on YouTube, and there didn't seem to be any -- he did not make inflammatory statements. His girlfriend was goading him into inflammatory statements, but he always answered them with silence. I'm not gonna doubt that he has a history, though.
NNAMDIOh, no, no. Well, don't go as far as the history yet, because I am sure that both you and Etan and I, for that matter, all listened to the same broadcast. Did you or did you not, Reed, hear him say that he disapproved of her taking pictures on Instagram with Magic Johnson?
REEDI agree that it was said, that she said it, but I don't think that he actually replied no. And certainly, when he said, when she said something about being with Magic, with Larry Bird, he did not reply in the affirmative.
NNAMDIWait a minute. Just to clarify, she said she did not know Larry Bird and couldn't figure out why -- and he couldn't figure out why she was bringing him up, but I'm simply asking you, did you or did you not hear him say that he disapproved of her displaying herself publicly with black, and did you or did you not hear him say that he did not want her bringing Magic Johnson or blacks to his games?
REEDI've gotta admit that I did not really sit down and listen to absolutely every single word.
NNAMDII would simply suggest that you listen more carefully to what he said, and I don't know, Etan Thomas, what would you like to say?
THOMASNo, well he clearly said it. You just have to listen to it. And he, I mean, he said a lot. There's a lot that he said. He said that it bothered him that she wanted to broadcast that she was associating with black people. And then he said that, you know, well you can do whatever you want to do in private, but he asked that you not bring him to my games.
THOMASAnd that's the part that was really amazed. Like wait, not bring black people to the games, period. He doesn't want them there. Then he goes on to talk about how you can do whatever you want to. You can sleep with them, you can do whatever, but just not in the public eye. Everything that he was saying was pretty much reminiscent and it sounded almost like, you know, like a whole other time period where, you know, you don't associate with black people in public. Like are you crazy? Don't do that. And it was just an amazing thing to have a person of his position and his power...
NNAMDIIn addition to which, Reed, at one point, he kept referring to her as Latina, and actually said she was a white Latina, and she kept asking him if he realized that she was mixed, that she was Mexican and black. Something to which he never really acknowledged forthright. But, Reed, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Ben in Berryville, Va. Ben, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHey. Well, thank you very much for taking my call. You know, whether it's steroids or whether it's racism, I think that the money talks, just like Mr. Thomas said. And I think, if the commissioner wanted to do something that would just set the tone, he would simply say look, we're putting an add-on into everybody's contracts. Owner, coach, assistant coach uses racially offensive language, there's proof of it, every player gets paid out on their contracts pro-rata and is now a free agent if they so choose.
NNAMDIEtan Thomas, what do you think about that?
THOMASWell, I agree with you, that money does talk. And there has to be something that's even more than that. I think he has to be removed from his position. I don't think he can go on being the face of the Clippers organization. I think that that is something that should have happened a long time ago, to be honest. But, I think that's really what the ultimate punishment needs to be.
NNAMDIYou know, but as a former player yourself, you know that in the past there are those who have characterized professional athletics as high-paid slavery, where you are attached by contract to the owner of the organization. What this caller is suggesting is that if the owner makes a racist statement, that contract becomes null and void. What do you say?
THOMASOh, well, no. I definitely think it should be null and void. But, I mean, but the thing is that there is precedence here. And in '99, the MLB forced Marge Schott, I think that's how I pronounce her name...
THOMAS...to fill her controlling interests in the Cincinnati Reds, because she made some racist comments that she had made. And they forced her to do that. And there's, you know, so that's a precedent right there that they can use. I mean, it's not -- he can do it if he so chooses. It's all in Adam Silver's back court right now, to see what he does. But there's definitely precedence for it.
NNAMDIHere is Ramsey in Hyattsville, Md. Ramsey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Ramsey, my fault. You're now on the air.
RAMSEYYeah, I've read a lot of things, saw on the Internet, on this issue. And yesterday, I want to say that there is a lot of resonance, especially in sports, you know, across Europe. Yesterday there was an incident when Barcelona's football club was playing Villarreal. And a banana was thrown at a black, a Brazilian player. So he had to eat the banana. And there was a lot of, you know, comments on BBC. So many people applauded him for actually eating the banana. So I just want to put that across to your listeners so they know that this is not just in America.
RAMSEYYou know, it's everywhere. And I hope that, you know, if we can join forces, black, white, you know, brown, yellow people, we could, you know do away with racism.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Etan Thomas, I know you are internationalist in your orientation, so obviously you know about the things that have been going on in soccer also. But I wanted to end this by sticking with basketball for a second, because the coach of the Clippers, Doc Rivers, said the biggest statement his team can make as men is to stick together and that anyone can protest. Their protests will be in their play. What do you make of that? Do you think there's something more significant that we can expect from the players, besides what they did yesterday, if this is not resolved to their approval?
THOMASI mean, some things are bigger than basketball. And I definitely have a lot of respect for Doc Rivers and I understand what he was saying. Some things are bigger than basketball. This is something in -- but they're letting the due process go and they're letting it play out. And then once we see what Adam Silver does, and hopefully he does the right thing and removes Donald Sterling as the CEO of the Clippers, and that sets a precedent. And then hopefully the Washington football team will remove Dan Snyder next.
NNAMDIOh, I knew you'd bring that up. Etan Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
THOMASOkay. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIEtan Thomas is a former professional basketball player who played for more than a decade in the NBA, much of that career spent with the Washington Wizards. He's an activist, writer and poet. He will soon be co-hosting a radio program for WPFW in Washington with the journalist Dave Zirin. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, how Greek life is affecting campus culture at universities across the country for good and bad. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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