Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers, was recently recorded saying that he didn’t like black people coming to his games to a female companion, claiming he only said it to try and get her to sleep with him. He is a horrendous example of humanity. As a direct result, he has been fined $2.5 million and banned for life from all NBA games and anything at all related to the Clippers including training and official functions. He cannot contribute to any business, player or staff decisions. He is owner by name only, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver is determined to force Sterling to sell the team as well.
Sterling has been dealt with in a way which nobody can say he doesn’t deserve, but the haste and the manner in which the verdict was reached has highlighted some hypocrisy in sport, and indeed in wider society. While there can be no defending racism, it seems that it is something which draws far more public attention and outrage than other instances of offensive behaviour, and the extent of the public backlash you face will depend on your popularity. For example, former boxing promoter extraordinaire Don King was known for fixing tournaments, dodgy contracts, and allegedly threatening and cheating his clients on a regular basis. Prior to this, he was also convicted of murder on two separate occasions in the fifties and sixties, the second involving him stomping a man to death over a debt. And yet, somehow, he was still celebrated for his work. There are some less than unsavoury characters within the NBA itself as well. Jason Kidd was convicted of spousal assault in 2001, but after doing his mandatory anger management course he went straight back to playing and the whole thing was forgotten about. He is currently the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.
These people continue to exist in the public sphere, receiving praise and awards, doing what they have always done as if nothing ever happened. So long as a person is sufficiently adored by their fans and deemed to be key to a team’s success, it seems as though they will be able to get away with it and people will get over it in time. Chelsea Football Club’s John Terry is a man of many discrepancies – he has had affairs with his teammates’ wives, been charged with assault, and has also been found guilty of making a racist remark. This has left him a distinctly unpopular figure in English football. Unless, of course, you’re a Chelsea fan, in which case he is a good player and his personal failings, though numerous, are irrelevant. Even still, it’s largely the racism that has earned Terry his reputation as a despicable man, rather than any of the other equally good reasons.
The practice of forgiving and forgetting when it comes to celebrities and their crimes is not limited to the world of sport. Director Roman Polanski fled the US in 1978 after being convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, with his absence meaning that he has never been properly punished for the crime. Since then, he has continued making films and even winning awards for them, with the film industry and his fans continuing to celebrate the works of a man who plead guilty to having sex with a girl of thirteen, who was said she had not consented to any of it. Additionally, Woody Allen received a Lifetime Achievement award at this year’s Golden Globes, despite continued allegations of sexual assault directed at him from his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. It’s unbelievable, and it should not be forgotten about simply because these people are good at what they do – talent does not negate despicable acts.
What is it about racism that means we have to see it punished and we cannot forget about it in the same way that we do other crimes and offensive behaviour? It is obviously something which is totally unacceptable in today’s society, and Sterling has been dealt with fittingly. He will be cast out from the sporting world and nobody will ever forget what he has done. However, when it comes to the behaviour of those in the public eye, it seems to be the only offence that is punished by such completely unforgiving, uncompromising exile and disapproval. Separating a person from their contributions to society and their achievements is one thing, but glossing over their sins is another. If racism is bad enough for us to banish a person like Donald Sterling from the public eye, and it absolutely 100% is, then why aren’t other crimes? Why is it that we are willing to forget about violence and sexual assault when the culprit is popular enough? Talent and popularity should not be powerful enough to wipe the slate clean in the court of opinion, no matter what they are capable of – it is their other violent and destructive capabilities that we should be taking note of.