Donald Sterling and that other 'ism'
Google "Donald Sterling outrage."
You'll find plenty of stories and commentary about his recent racist comments and his discriminatory business practices. And about his less-than-recent racist comments and discriminatory business practices. And well, you get the point. Donald Sterling is a racist.
But there's an outrage missing from nearly every Sterling conversation: The guy is a remarkable sexist, too. Where are those stories?
Sterling has been both "-ists" for a long time, something I discovered in 2009 when I assisted fellow ESPN The Magazine senior writer Peter Keating in reporting an investigative piece on Sterling. The story details how he'd been sued multiple times by women for sexual harassment, including one former employee who testified in 1996 that she'd been ordered by Sterling to find massage therapists willing to service him sexually. "I want someone who will, you know, let me put it in or who [will] suck on it," Sterling said.
Recently, though, during chatter about Oprah Winfrey as a potential Clippers owner, it hit me that, as anti-Sterling sentiment has swelled, many of the same people who've taken the most stringent stance on Sterling's racism either fail to mention his history of gross sexual misconduct or inject commentary that simultaneously (if unintentionally) reinforces his anti-woman behavior.
A recent post by the staff of TMZ -- the same people who acquired and released the infamous audio tapes that sparked this most recent controversy -- was titled "V. Stiviano: Even 'Friends' Think SHE'S A FAME WHORE," and accuses Stiviano of "golddigging."
On Tuesday, Clay Travis of Fox Sports penned a doozy of a column questioning a societal shift to valuing and punishing words over actions and running through a litany of recent scandals involving comments made by Sterling and others in the sports world. The word "racist" appears nine times. The word "homophobic" turns up twice. The word "sexist"? Zero mentions.
The Oprah-as-Clippers-owner discussion, which began when the media mogul tossed her velvet cloche into the ring on April 30, is a perfect example of sexism seeping into the way in which we cover sports news. Nearly every story on Oprah's possible purchase of the team includes a mention that she is a woman. Some even go as far as to say she wouldn't be welcome into the NBA boys' club so she should step aside for Magic Johnson.
Most of the commentary about Sterling, on ESPN and elsewhere, has missed the deeply rooted misogyny that underpins this scandal. But is it really plausible that the same 29 owners who surely will vote Sterling out of the NBA for his unapologetic racist comments are also so sexist that they would be unable to see past Oprah's gender?
Oprah is worth $2.9 billion and is the richest self-made woman in America and the second-richest black woman in the world. Were she to purchase the Clippers, she'd become the first black female majority owner of an NBA franchise and only the second black owner after Michael Jordan. She has an incredible reach that extends beyond typical NBA fans and would be one of the most successful business minds among the ownership fraternity. Were she to be given the next 33 years to duplicate or, more likely, surpass Sterling's track record -- seven playoff appearances in three decades -- does anyone believe she would fail to do so? She's freaking Oprah!
But forget about Oprah, specifically, for a second. Recent studies show that having any legitimate female owner likely would make everybody in the NBA boys' club a little richer.
Time and again, research has shown that heterogeneous companies make better decisions, are more creative and outperform those with paper doll staffing. According to a report released in 2012 by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, companies with women on their boards outperform those with all-male boards in challenging times. A 2007 report by Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization, showed that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors experienced 53 percent higher returns on equity than those with the lowest board diversity.
That's not simply because people with dissimilar backgrounds bring more diverse ideas to the table. According to a 2010 study by the Kellogg School of Management, diversity in a group makes people uncomfortable -- and the powerful urge to defuse that tension leads to better problem-solving. The more diverse the group, the more conflict that arises and the better the end result.
In essence: If we want better performances, we need to spend more time outside of our comfort zones.
That is the place from which, after much contemplation, I write this column. When the Sterling scandal broke, I was in the midst of reporting a story on the glass ceiling in action sports, a landscape populated with limit-pushing women and the sports world I write the most about. The reporting process was fascinating, and through it I came to realize how much of what we believe about ourselves and our capabilities is unconsciously shaped by the conversations of those around us. Sentiments about what women can and should be able to do have become so common that they've essentially formed an accepted backdrop for the way we in the media speak about women (and in the sports world). They so permeate the way we think that we rarely stop to question their validity.
Men and women are different, certainly. But we are not different enough to matter in the ways we are often told to believe. We are not so different that a brilliant woman cannot find a place within the ownership ranks of the NBA. But it takes a special person to be tone-deaf to the beliefs and comments of the world around her and charge ahead to attempt the unproven. Those are the women who backflip dirt bikes even though the conversation tells them they're not strong enough to do so, or who achieve global-icon status despite being born in poverty to a teenage single mom in Mississippi. And they are the women who show the rest of us that it is possible to do the same.
Were a reporter to suggest NBA owners would feel similar opposition to a prospective owner who was black or gay, those comments would have fueled a larger conversation long before this column was published. But in sports, if there is any "-ism" that consistently fails to move the needle, sexism is it. That is true even when suggesting the NBA continue to operate under the current status quo because having a woman owner would make the other owners uncomfortable. Isn't that the same argument made against integration of any kind?
Having a woman owner in the NBA might make a few men uncomfortable. But maybe being uncomfortable is exactly what the league needs right now.