Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has more or less purchased the Los Angeles Clippers from the embattled Sterling family for $2 billion. That’s right $2 billion. American dollars. Here’s some context: Ballmer outbid competitors Oprah and co. by $4 million. Ballmer is “worth” $20 billion, so paying for the Clippers, I suppose, is some, weird, uber rich people version of paying tithes. The last NBA team that was up for sale, the Milwaukee Bucks, was sold for $550 million. A price that, at the time, was an NBA record. Get this: the Bucks were sold, like, last week. So you don’t even have to adjust for inflation–as if the Bucks were some blockbuster film from the 70s that held all sorts of records and the Clippers were Titanic–to fully understand the difference. In fact, before he purchased the Clippers, Ballmer tried to buy the Bucks for $650 million, but the offer was rejected by the Bucks’ owner, since Ballmer wanted to move the team to Seattle. Before that, Ballmer wanted to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that offer was rejected after the current Timberwolves owner for the city to pony up tax dollars to renovate the team’s arena. The purchase made folks stop and wonder why Ballmer would overpay. It’s almost as if Ballmer paid Boardwalk prices for States Avenue, with St. Charles Place still available to buy and Virginia in the hands of another player. But, I suppose that, among other things, at the very least we might say that Ballmer is billionaire-style parched. We’ll just have to assume that this $2 billion refreshment quenches a thirst most of us will never know.
Anyway, let’s do some math for the Sterlings, shall we? Donald Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million. That’s roughly $33.7 million in today’s dollars. So, if and when the NBA approves this $2 billion sale, once the smoke clears, the Sterlings plan to make a helluva pile of dough. Again, racism pays.
And I don’t mean that as hyperbole. The Sterlings made their money in the real estate business, where they perpetually engaged in racist and discriminatory practices. It’s been noted before, but bears repeating that the Sterlings paid just over $2 million in damages that one time they were found guilty of said discrimination. When you’re a billionaire, that’s a drop in the bucket, especially if your insurance company pays. The money the Sterlings made from real estate enabled them to purchase the Clippers. Recorded morsels that only partly reflected the racism that justified Sterling’s business practices, including regarding his basketball team as some sort of plantation, forced the sale of that team at a jaw-dropping price. And Sterling will make an incredible profit.
All of this to say that NBA players and brass may feel relieved once the sale is final; they will rejoice that they have gotten rid of a person who makes their racist stance and practice so blatant. Yet all of that is surface-level activism that merely makes things for those with some level of comfort less uncomfortable. It does nothing to change the structural reality of ownership in the NBA. At the end of the day, the perpetrator is greatly enriched, and his figurehead has been replaced with another.
So in sports, so in life. Part of the reason we jumped on the Sterling soap opera so quickly and rejoiced at his “punishment” was because it allowed us to sleep better knowing we paid lip service to racism in America. But the profits from the Clippers’ sale will not help the players. It won’t further help the tenants Sterling discriminated against. It won’t even greatly change the structure of the NBA. It should serve as a large monetary reminder that unless one works for the actual collapse of structures of inequality, those who engage in white supremacy will always benefit from it. Fining Donald Sterling and demanding that he sell the team made NBA players and fans feel better. We no longer have to see him; we no longer have to talk about him. Such a temporary distraction from the fact that not only does racism often prove beneficial, but this country demands a kind of engagement with it in order to receive certain kinds of rewards.
I’m sure the Clippers’ sale is a wonderful thing for the Sterings, Ballmer and his ego, and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Yet I’m afraid that when one really thinks about it, this isn’t really that much of a victory for anyone else–not even the players. In fact, it’s not much of a victory at all.