Look at this picture.
April 28, 2014 marked the 47th anniversary of Muhammad Ali‘s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army.
At Ali’s side during the press conference to announce his disinterest in being drafted to go off to fight the Vietnamese were several prominent athletes who were to show support of the G.O.A.T. Maybe you recognize a few of them?
Imagine if you can what it would be like if there were a Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar willing to step away from protecting their wallets at all costs and dare to stand up as brave, strong and proud Black men against a racist slave owner like Donald Sterling.
Then realize you are imagining and wake up and shake your head in sorrow because what happened then seems nothing more than a dream that could never happen again. The day of the socially conscious athlete seems to have passed and what we have in their stead are better compensated and safely neutered eunuchs.
But then again, there are still men who are willing to say “Enough!” In less than a week after the news broke of Sterling’s comments to his girlfriend he was gone. Banished from the league and his team up for sale and all because the NBA owners and commissioner faced a stark choice: smack Sterling on the wrist with a fine and suspension and wait for the storm to pass or throw his ugly ass overboard with cement shoes because all hell was going to break loose if they didn’t. These are not stupid people and the dumped The Donald.
It’s always easy to tell others what they should do in situations you’re not in yourself (and most of us will never cash an NBA-sized paycheck), so I grant what I think doesn’t factor into the decision NBA players faced whether they would boycott playoff games to protest Sterling’s slave master mindset as the owner of the L.A. Clippers.
Sterling’s stupidity is not new to the owners or the players. The difference is now there is a will among the players to do something about Sterling. If three or four teams–not players–all decided not to play their games, the shock to the system of professional sports would be seismic.
As long as NBA ballers are dunking on Sportscenter and saying silent about anything happening in the real world, the league, the owners and the corporate sponsors of both are happy to sit back and counting the money. But let the Bulls, Wizards, Thunder, Grizzlies and Warriors all refuse to take the court in solidarity with the Clippers and the players will see they make the game and can break it. The players ARE the NBA. Nobody pays hundreds of dollars to watch Sterling sitting on the sidelines with his hands resting on his enormous guts as his gold-diggers and booty calls smile prettily and wait for Mr. Sugar Daddy to buy them a Ferrari, a Range Rover, two Bentleys and a million dollar apartment.
The fans fill the seats, rock the gear and cheer for King James, Durant, and Kobe to give them a thrill. Nobody ever paid money to watch an owner own.
The Thunder without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Bulls without Joakim Noah, the Wizards without John Wall, the Thunder without Zach Randolph, the Warriors without Stephen Curry and the Clippers without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are not subject to being swapped out with a strike-breaking scab. You can’t replace them with subs from the D-league or scrubs off the street.
The players in pro sports have more power than they know and once having tasted it, I doubt they will willingly give it up.
It’s not where we stand in times of comfort that matter, it’s where we stand in times of turmoil. If my boss is doing everything but calling me a nigger to my face, I always have the option to clean off my desk, drop off my pass card and step. I might be choking down peanut butter and crackers and chasing it with a cup of water, but some things are worth it.
Anyone who would place financial compensation over simple human dignity has skewed priorities. Some things are worth giving up a fat check for. Some things are worth walking away from.
Some things are worth being a free man instead of a scared slave for. What price do you place on your humanity?
The hardest part of the hammer Silver dropped on Sterling isn’t the fine and not even the suspension. It’s forcing a rich man to sell his toy.
Donald Sterling is not going to go quietly. He’s refused for years to sell his team. He feeds off of the fame and the notoriety of being one of 30 rich guys who own a NBA team. He’s 80 years old and sitting on a billion bucks. He may decide suing the shit out of the NBA isn’t the worst way to spend his sunset years.
That’s for the lawyers to worry about. The league has changed and perhaps irrevocably. Perhaps only for a moment. The mantra of the 21st Black athlete has been I just play ball. Don’t say anything about anything that might piss someone off. I’m just a jock. What happens in the real world isn’t important, doesn’t matter. Keep your head down. Cash the check. Keep it moving.
The spirit of unity and solidarity which brought Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Brown and others to stand with Ali at the most critical point of his career was a singular and inspirational moment. The story of how the NBA players rallied to remove from the league the cancer that was Donald Sterling doesn’t have as dramatic a moment as one photograph yet it is no less inspirational.