Now that Donald Sterling has been banished from basketball for life, I can share my anxieties about the past week.
I’m a basketball nut. I moved to Los Angeles from Montreal in the early 1980s, and I’ve been a passionate follower of the Lakers and NBA basketball ever since. For years I’ve been comforted by the innocent sights and sounds of basketball.
Watching the Lakers, win or lose, was like a private sanctuary.
It was a welcome break from the real drama of life—the drama of family and work; the drama of genocides in Africa; the drama of the homeless and the crippled and the terminally ill.
This is the secret elixir of loving a sports team…the safety of the drama.
You know the drama is not real, but you crave it anyway.
Your team will win a championship, and you will get zero personal benefit—but you will celebrate as if you just won the lottery.
Your team will lose a dramatic game seven—and nothing bad will happen to you-- but you will be crestfallen as if you just lost a job.
That is the elixir right there: even though your beloved team lost, nothing bad happened to you.
You are in your safe sanctuary. The stakes only appear high, but you know there are no real stakes. For a sports fan, that is both the limitation and the beauty of sports.
The racist rants of Clippers owner Donald Sterling violated this safe sanctuary.
Real life came to spoil the party.
The beauty of safe drama was poisoned by the ugliness of real drama.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if real-life problems have never intruded into professional sports. We’ve had cheating scandals, fights, contract squabbles, union strikes, personal insults, and so forth. Sports are hardly immune to the realities of life.
But with all those problems, one could always say, “Let’s not allow these distractions from getting in the way of playing the game and winning a championship.”
Somehow, the game was always bigger than the problems.
Not with racism.
Not when you’re black, and not when the guy signing your paycheck has gone on record as considering blacks as if they’re sub-human.
This was not a distraction. It was moral rape.
No game can be bigger than this.
This isn’t a case of a rogue player or a coach who easily can be dismissed.
This is an owner.
And not just an owner, but an owner of a team that has a decent chance of winning a championship this year.
How do you block out of your mind that if you win, you will-- in some odd, perverted way-- reward your racist owner?
You can’t block it out. It’s impossible.
For the first time that I can remember in decades of following professional sports, one could have made a decent case here for not winning-- for not playing your best.
Because this is the reality: Fighting racism is infinitely more important than winning a championship.
For a sports fan, this is why this “distraction” was poison.
It corrupted the sanctity of winning.
It changed the game.
Racism from the top contaminated a sport.
Especially in a league where virtually every owner is white and almost 80 percent of the players are black, how could any hint of racism not be toxic?
This poisoned the players and the fans. The fans may be secondary here, but they ought to be part of the conversation.
It is a sign of a society’s greatness when we can progress to the point where life doesn’t have to be all about survival and dealing with real drama—when we can work hard all day and get home and kick back and enjoy a beautiful game where no matter who wins or loses, we never lose.
For millions of sports fans, Donald Sterling’s racism risked poisoning those precious little moments of innocence.
Now that he has been banished, the games will resume and the wounds will heal.
In this game of healing, the fans will be the best doctors.