The 1919 World Series is remembered for the Chicago Black Sox scandal, where eight players of the White Sox were indicted and tried for “fixing” the Series by intentionally losing to Cincinnati. The players were acquitted at their trial, but that didn’t matter to the brand new first Commissioner of Baseball, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He issued a lifetime ban to those eight players (plus two others) involved in the scandal, saying, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
The decision was controversial; Landis had demanded unprecedented authority as a condition for taking the Commissioner’s job. He used that authority to rid baseball of its worst scandal.
Switch sports and fast-forward 95 years. Basketball fans were enjoying the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs when an audio recording surfaced at TMZ. This recording contains several racist comments uttered by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling – a man who has long had a reputation for racism. The comments, very derogatory toward African Americans and Magic Johnson in particular, became a huge issue that threatened to derail the playoffs and the rest of this NBA season.
And when I say derail the season, the Golden State Warriors had planned to actually walk off the court on Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers in protest of Sterling’s comments. As reported by the Bay Area News Group, “The Warriors were going to go through pre-game warm-ups and take part in the national anthem and starting line-up introductions. They were going to take the floor for the jump ball… Then once the ball was in the air, they were just going to walk off. All 15 of them.” Other teams around the league were planning similar boycotts. This year’s NBA postseason could have gone down in NBA history for the way it ended.
Sterling, meet Silver.
The parallel between the 1919 Black Sox and 2014’s Black-Hearted Sterling involves a new commissioner. Adam Silver has been the NBA Commissioner for just a few months, inheriting the league from the long reign of David Stern. His first real test became just how would he handle this situation, a real trial by fire.
When Silver announced that he got firsthand confirmation that the voice on the recording was actually Donald Sterling’s, he made one of the most bold and decisive moves in pro sports history: a lifetime ban from anything NBA, the maximum $2.5 million fine, and a promise to force Sterling to sell the Clippers franchise. Silver said, “The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league.”
The sad reality of this situation highlights just how deep racism still runs in the American undercurrent. While perhaps not as overt as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, there are a lot of people in all walks of life who still hold bigoted and hateful positions deep within themselves. We’ve seen it in the way some people speak of our President, and we’ve seen it in the words of a person who owns an NBA team. In this Year of Our Lord 2014.
While Adam Silver became an instant national hero for doing the right thing, this incident shows just how far we as a society (and one human family) still have to go. Dr. King, we’re not there yet… but a lot of us are trying really hard.