The Concept of Ownership in Athletics: Donald Sterling and Consciousness


The concept of ownership rarely gets discussed outside of real estate, corporations, or cars. Yet it pervades our cultural institutions. Movie studios, music labels, publishing houses, and yes…professional sports teams. When a fan wears a jersey of his or her favorite player, they are wearing it to honor that person. When the word “owner” is used to describe the relationship between the fan and the player, the honor is inherently lost. Even Mark Cuban, who seemingly loves his players with genuine affection, can’t pretend he’s an honest fan. He has purchased the right to involve himself in the purchasing and selling of his team’s roster. He hires the GM and the GM signs and trades.

As the Northwestern University football team forms a union, the NCAA is finally forced to face reality: a growing mass of Americans believe their Division One athletic institutional policies of making billions of dollars off of forced labor in the guise of calling them “student-athletes” is morally corrupt and must be changed.

Today, the NBA is being forced to face its ugly reality: at least one of the league’s 30 “owners” is a despicable bigot who can no longer hide behind his billions and pay off anyone who questions his beliefs. For decades, Donald Sterling has said all kinds of bullshit about all kinds of people, but he has a special fascination with/ relationship to “beautiful black bodies.” As anyone who has studied any modicum of American history knows, the black male body has been distorted, envied, and objectified for hundreds of years. William C. Rhoden’s essential book, $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, details the ways in which slavery ties in to modern perceptions of black athletes. Fans of athletic achievement don’t always notice the bodies they watch. Sometimes they marvel at the athletic feats. They use words like “freak,” to denote physical genius. They use words like “wingspan” to describe especially unique bodies. I do it when I write about the NBA. I try to avoid the casually negative cliches “freak” and “beast,” which are tossed around subconsciously. What athletes put their bodies through: pain, punishment, life-threatening injuries. Marathon runners. Football players. Diana Nyad’s attempts at swimming from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Yet Sterling’s treatment of the black male body as an “owner” is especially despicable. Bringing his female “friends” into the Clippers locker room to watch them shower. Sterling has gone decades without a reality check. Why? Because he is a billionaire.

The vast majority of sports fans have been conditioned to divorce politics from sports. The escapism and pure entertainment that the games provide makes the separation complete for many fans. Others view sports as a prism through which to view society. Social progress is made through sport. Social movements gain traction through athletes. Progressive teams broaden the culture, bringing in international players, exposing Americans to new names, new backgrounds, and new styles of play. Whether we like it or not, sport both reflects and impacts society.

76% of the NBA’s players are African-American, while all but two of the 30 principal owners are white. In terms of fan demographics among all major American sports, the NBA has the youngest audience, with 45 percent of its viewers under 35. It also has the highest share of black viewers, at 45 percent—three times higher than the NFL or NCAA basketball. 

As Marc Tracy, writing for The New Republic, points out, the NBA has long been the sports world’s beacon of social progress:

As the league begins to move against its longest-tenured owner, the moment feels positively catalytic. The National Basketball Association is the sports world’s most progressive league. Its 30 teams are 30 businesses out to make money, but they do it in a game that finds its greatest popularity among the lower and middle classes and as a league with the second-highest proportion of Democratic fans. More specifically, the NBA is society’s cutting edge as far as race is concerned—it’s the league that birthed the first black head coach (Bill Russell, with due respect to football’s Fritz Pollard); first black superstar (Wilt Chamberlain); first black sneaker brand (Air Jordan); first black general manager (Wayne Embry); and only black owners (the Charlotte Bobcats were owned by Bob Johnson and are now owned by Michael Jordan). Its recent surge in popularity and value has been due primarily to an unusually talented and charismatic inventory of superstars who are overwhelmingly young black men.

Donald Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 1981, but in his mind, the year may as well have been 1781. His vision of ownership is literal and historical, in the worst way. The notoriously delusional Sterling has been said to envision the Clippers players as if they are his property, essentially his slaves.

If we go beyond the obvious albatross / public relations disaster that the NBA faces in allowing Donald Sterling to remain in place as the Clippers owner, we can start to consider the idea that “ownership” as a concept lends itself to removing the human element from the equation. The blinding greed that comes with vast wealth creates detachment from reality. It creates entitlement. A delusional sense of self-importance that comes with purchasing and selling. Numbers become reality. Things become reality. Humans become a nuisance or a toy or a thing. An object.

When we watch sports with our brains turned off, we enable the wealthiest men (almost always men) to play with their toys. Now that we’re collectively turning our consciousness on, let’s hope we keep the candle lit for longer than a few hours.

Sport is a social institution. It is political. It is cultural. It is powerful. It can entertain us. It can delight us. But we can not forget what makes it exist. People. Those people aren’t playing games.

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