We’ll hear more from Baylor Barbee in my next post, as I promised. The news of the day forced my hand. Like everyone else with access to the Internet, I need to weigh on Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and the subject of the biggest sports-media firestorm in some time.
In one of the great revenge moves of the Internet Age, Sterling’s ex-girlfriend apparently recorded several minutes of a phone conversation laced with comments that were not only racist but puzzling. My initial reaction to the headline comments, complaints about her posting a photo with Magic Johnson, besides revulsion, was, “Really? You’re complaining about her taking a photo with Magic?” Two decades after his retirement from the NBA, Magic has to be one of the five or 10 people any sports fan would most want a photo with, isn’t he? Who in the sports world is closer to being universally loved? Cal Ripken?
But this is a sports marketing blog, so let’s approach Donald Sterling from a brand management viewpoint. Here’s the question I dread asking: What, exactly, is Donald Sterling being pilloried for right now?
It’s not for being a racist. Donald Sterling appears to have established those credentials years ago. Which of these is the most offensive, the most harmful example of alleged racism (Sterling has not admitted to any of these):
1) Donald Sterling complains to his girlfriend that she’s being seen in public with Magic Johnson because he’s African American.
2) Donald Sterling practices housing discrimination against an untold number of African Americans, Hispanics and other people, settling a Justice Department lawsuit for $2.765 million in 2009 over the matter.
3) Donald Sterling, according to another federal lawsuit filed in 2003, explains his preference not to rent to Latinos because, “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” The lawsuit also accused him of saying “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
The 2009 settlement didn’t prompt ex-Clipper Chauncey Billups to say he would have refused to play in the Clippers’ playoff game over the weekend. The 2003 lawsuit didn’t prompt Kevin Johnson, Sacramento mayor and National Basketball Players Association search committee chairman, to call this a “defining moment” for the NBA and propose a five-point plan to punish Sterling.
So why the 24/7 attack this time? Because this time, we have the audio. It’s been 50 years since scholar Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The media is the message,” in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s truer than ever in the social media age. But it’s been plenty true throughout the TV Age.
Remember Al Campanis, the Los Angeles Dodger General Manager who lost his job in April 1987 after remarks he made on ABC’s Nightline program? When asked, on a show commemorating the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, why there hadn’t been more black managers, Campanis said they “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.”
Unlike Sterling, Campanis didn’t have a reputation for holding racist beliefs. The Dodgers, before and during his leadership, had been early adopters to attracting talent from a variety of backgrounds and countries. Campanis was actually a minor league teammate of Robinson’s and was said to have been close to the future Hall of Famer. To be fair, he also stirred up a minor controversy, eventually quieted by Tom Lasorda’s exceptional record, when he chose the white Lasorda to succeed long-time manager Walt Alston over black fellow Dodger coach Jim Gilliam.
Hardly a Sterling track record, and we didn’t have the internet to allow hundreds upon hundreds of pundits to react in public. But the public reaction was strong enough that Campanis resigned two days after making those remarks.
We can’t resist the “gotcha” quality of recorded comments. They have at least the appearance of being crystal clear, while actions and quotes reported by third parties are usually fogged by context and uncertainty. The odd thing is, I find the quotes in the Justice Department lawsuit more credible than the recording from an ex-girlfriend with a very sharp ax to grind – at least until some arbiter of the consequences such as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attributes the comments to Sterling.
From a brand management viewpoint, the sad and cynical truth is, it’s worse to say something racist in the vicinity of a microphone than it is to practice racism. I wish it weren’t so, and I hope someday soon we’re better able to judge the complete track record of the next celebrity or politician who puts her foot in her mouth. Not that such a response would do Sterling much good.
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