A Message to Clippers: WWRD, What Would Rosa Do?

Quick: Which team won the 2004 NBA Championship title? Can you recall without Googling it? If so, can you remember what team was their opponent? If you’re like many folks – even the biggest basketball fans – you’re probably struggling to recall the champion from just a decade ago and the runner up isn’t coming any more easily to mind. As for the also-rans, the playoff teams that didn’t make it to the championship game, you probably couldn’t get them all right if somebody promised you a wad of cash to do that.

We only remember the winners, if we remember them at all. The rest are losers and quickly are forgotten.

The NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers should consider that before they take the court for tonight’s playoff game 5 versus the Warriors. They can play and possibly win the game, maybe the series. Who knows, they could even go all the way to the championship round. But, anything less than claiming the big prize and they’ll fade into the woodwork where the rest reside.

Compare that to the opportunity they have to make history tonight and do something that would transcend pro hoops, even a championship title. By sitting down and boycotting this playoff game, the Clippers would create a lasting legacy. Fans would regard them as heroes, men of substance, who seized their moment and placed principle ahead of profession. They’d score more points than they ever could by running across the hardwood with a basketball in their hands.

Team owner, Donald Sterling, has them in a terrible spot. That recently unearthed audio confirms what many around the league long suspected, that Sterling is a racist. The audio where we hear Sterling clearly expressing his disdain for African Americans, telling his girlfriend with unrestrained clarity, “Don’t bring black people [to my games],” confirms that his past superciliousness towards blacks was no aberration.

Now, the Clippers know how their owner truly regards them in the secrecy of his private moments. As considerable, now everyone knows what the Clippers know and are waiting to see what they’ll do. All eyes are on the young players.

Fairly or otherwise, history will consider them by how the team responds – or doesn’t.

This is one of those moments where what you don’t do speaks as loudly as what you do. It’s a time where inaction resounds as much as action and just waiting things out isn’t an option. What will you do Clippers?

So far, what they’ve done is to stage a symbolic game 4 protest where they wore their warm up shirts inside out hiding the Clippers identity mark from sight. However, with the same Clippers logo seen prominently on their warm up pants, that protest wasn’t much stronger than slamming the bedroom door when you’re mad at your mom.

What action, then, strikes the proper chord? What sends a loud enough message? Is a loud message necessary at all? What’s the big deal?

After all, working for someone you don’t like or who doesn’t like you is nothing new. If each of us waits to get paid by an employer who respects us as people, some of us might never get paid. Heck, the guy who signed your check last Friday may be twice as racist as Sterling apparently is. To a certain extent, don’t we all go along to get along? Could be.

But, few of us work in the NBA culture where the optics come as close to mirroring the antebellum South as just about any other work environment. The language reeks of Ol’ Man River with its uber-rich white “owners” who literally TRADE predominantly black players among one another. Sterling’s rant exposes what Slate’s Josh Levin calls the “uncomfortable truth” of the NBA’s plantation-style racial dynamic. The owners own the teams AND they own the players on the teams who run and jump for them.

That’s why what Donald Sterling says and how his players respond to what they’ve heard him say matters. It’s about dignity, not just their own.

From one coast to the next, young African American boys and girls look to pro-athletes for inspiration with admiration and awe. How do they interpret seeing their heroes take this one on the chin? Do they walk away learning one’s dignity, integrity and racial pride has a price?

What about the members of the worker class who are of color? How much easier does it become for those workers’ employers to mishandle or disrespect them if wealthy professional athletes keep quiet?

At a time when Donald Sterling’s and Cliven Bundy’s lights are shining, and the Supreme Court is whittling away at affirmative action, and states actively are trimming voter rights, when a pro-football team owner thinks there’s nothing offensive about the name “Redskins” and more than a few prominent politicians proudly disrespect the very President of the United States – sounding race-baiting dog whistles, publicly wagging their fingers in his face, shouting at him in a congressional chamber – at such a time do the Clippers dare run and jump for Donald? Or do you sit down like Rosa did?

In remaining seated and not moving to the back of the bus, Rosa Parks provided the Civil Rights Movement’s spark. The nation paid attention when four African American college students politely kept their Woolworth’s lunch counter seats rather than leave there without being served. In the late 1980s, sit-ins on college campuses pressed universities and corporations to divest of their holdings in apartheid South Africa.

History remembers and rewards the sitters.

Some might question whether the time to protest is right; saying wait until the playoffs have ended. Others might question whether the nature of the offense was serious enough, whether it’s just some insignificant insult that’s being blown out of proportion; you have to pick your fights, they’d say. Others, rightly, may question how hotly we should react to comments made during a private conversation; we can’t punish someone for what they think, they’d say. Still others point to the players’ contractual obligation to play; saying to not play exposes the players to potential fines, legal retribution or worse.

At pivotal moments those are the kinds of decisions people face. They are difficult decisions especially for people who aren’t necessarily inclined toward activism and by nature are focused on self.

For every Tommie Smith and John Carlos who raised black gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics, there are probably dozens who keep their hands pocketed. How many athletes today would sacrifice their career’s most productive years to stand on principle like Muhammad Ali. In 1967, Ali’s heavyweight title was stripped and he was convicted of draft evasion for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. Smith and Carlos were reprimanded and ostracized.

Lesson: There are times we’re called to take a stand and sometimes we do that by keeping our seats.

Will the Clippers learn that lesson or keep their shirts inside out. Will they let the league’s punishment speak for them or will they speak up themselves? Will they risk fines (which are seriously unimaginable) or will they play it safe? Will they sacrifice something very personal for something greater than themselves?

There are no easy decisions.

Incidentally, the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title. Their opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers. The other teams in the playoffs that year were …… well, never mind, they really don’t matter.

© Copyright 2014 Jonathan Clarke, All rights reserved


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