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Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, center, and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar embrace during a news conference outside City Hall in Los Angeles Tuesday, April 29, 2014, after Johnson's comments on the decision by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from basketball for life in response to racist comments the league says Sterling made in a recorded conversation. Former NBA player Luke Walton applauds at rear right rear. (AP)
Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, center, and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar embrace during a news conference outside City Hall in Los Angeles Tuesday, April 29, 2014, after Johnson's comments on the decision by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from basketball for life in response to racist comments the league says Sterling made in a recorded conversation. Former NBA player Luke Walton applauds at rear right rear. (AP)

David Shribman

Fires of racism still smoulder inside and out of sporting arena Add to ...

So another sporting embarrassment is outed – and thrown out.

There were no tears shed around Sportsland USA on Tuesday when the National Basketball Association banned for life (and fined heavily) its leading owner miscreant, Donald Sterling, whose sense of intolerance allowed him to tolerate African-Americans on his Los Angeles Clippers basketball team but apparently not anywhere near his friends.

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American sports has had its hero owners and has had its louts. In Boston alone, for example, there have been both – the sainted late Walter Brown of the Celtics and the imaginative Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots in the first category, the curiously beloved but deeply racist late Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox pretty much in the second.

Racial and religious intolerance were once brandished openly in American society, most vividly in one of the most revered but segregated temples of the sporting life: the golf clubhouse. Today’s racism and intolerance is of a more subtle variety, and as a result the shocking and sickening remarks of Mr. Sterling earned swift contempt and repudiation. That is progress, but of a grudging type.

But it also illuminates how what happens in the arena of sports is a reliable indicator of what happens in the broader civic arena.

That is why Jackie Robinson’s integration of major-league baseball in 1947 was such a signature moment, not only in the history of baseball but in American history as well, and why the movie 42, chronicling the movement of Mr. Robinson from the Negro Leagues to the Montreal Royals farm club and then on to the Brooklyn Dodgers, already is regarded as a classic American cultural icon.

At the centre of that film was a theretofore unknown sportswriter, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading black newspapers in North America. Mr. Smith’s correspondence with Dodger president Branch Rickey, preserved in the special collections of the Baseball Hall of Fame, shows how the segregated world of professional sports struggled to deal with racial issues.

In early January, 1946, Mr. Rickey set out his plan to Mr. Smith. “The Montreal Club will begin its training season at Daytona Beach on the first of March,” he wrote in one of those letters now resting in the Cooperstown, N.Y., archives. “There will be two colored boys on the Montreal Club – Robinson one of them…I hope very much that you can arrange to be in Daytona Beach ahead of time to see to it that satisfactory living accommodations are arranged for these boys.” He added: “I don’t want to find ourselves embarrassed on March 1st because of Robinson’s not having a place to stay.”

The struggles and triumph of Mr. Robinson now are well-known, but the struggles to create a bias-free atmosphere in sports – an area where blacks have had special success – continues, two-thirds of a century after Mr. Robinson took the field in Montreal and, later, in Brooklyn.

The years that followed were full of racial strife but also were marked by racial progress. A year after Mr. Robinson integrated the major leagues, Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in another arena of American life that has provided a ladder of economic mobility for blacks in the United States, the armed forces. Six years later the Supreme Court ordered an end to racial segregation of schools, and a decade after that Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act.

No one can argue that sports caused these events, but it is also clear that the sports world reflects the main currents of American life. That’s why the racist and anti-Semitic remarks two decades ago by Marge Schott, the president of the Cincinnati Reds, and the odious comments of Mr. Sterling this month attracted such outrage. They indicated that the fires of racism may have been tamped down but that they still smoulder. They stand as symbols not so much of how far the United States has come but of how far it still must travel.

Five years ago the basketball legend Elgin Baylor, a Clippers general manager after his playing career ended, filed legal action against Mr. Sterling, saying the owner had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the team. This week the NBA declared an end to the plantation ethos. The action came as the United States marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – and it demonstrated that the battle for racial equality has yet to be fully won.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.

Follow on Twitter: @shribmanpg

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