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In this Monday, Dec. 19, 2010 photo, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling watches the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles. On Saturday, April 26, 2014, the NBA said it is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to his girlfriend.


The furor over racist remarks attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling spread quickly beyond the boundaries of sport. Even U.S. President Barack Obama felt compelled to comment. But it was the intersection of sport and race that made this case so compelling.

How could someone who employs dozens of African-Americans, who has made millions in an industry dominated by African-American athletes, make such comments? How could Donald Sterling be the owner of a team vying for the NBA title, a team that was virtually guaranteed a position in the league's top tier when the NBA itself engineered a trade three years ago that sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Clippers?

Three out of four players in the NBA are African-American. Nearly 45 per cent of head coaches are African-American. It's a league that has been praised above all other major sports for its success in diversity hiring.

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But it is still a league owned and run primarily by white people. Michael Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, is the only African American to own one of the league's 30 franchises.

The release of the tape, in which Mr. Sterling allegedly asks his mistress not to appear in photos with black men and not to bring them to the arena, is an awful stain on the league.

The NBA's stars, led by LeBron James, were quick to demand strong punishment, if the remarks can be proven to have been made by Mr. Sterling.

Mr. James said the Clippers owner has no place in the league. Mr. Jordan also condemned the statements.

In the recorded conversation, Mr. Sterling's purported mistress V. Stiviano, who mentions that she is of black and Mexican background, points out the hypocrisy of the statements made by her interlocutor.

"Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?" she asks.

"Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars and houses," the man alleged to be Mr. Sterling says. "Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

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He also says, "You can sleep with [black people] … You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that [Instagram] and not to bring them to my games."

David West, a player with the Indiana Pacers, took to Twitter to say, "Sterling basically articulated Plantation Politics … Make money off the Bucks/Lay with the Women/No Association in Public good or bad."

What's curious about the strength of the reaction to this tape is that Mr. Sterling has said and done much worse with comparatively little public outrage and no response from the NBA. He was forced to pay millions to settle a lawsuit in 2009 in which he was accused of discriminating against African-American tenants in his apartment holdings.

Elgin Baylor, a former NBA star who sued the organization over his dismissal as an executive, said that Mr. Sterling would "bring women into the locker room to gaze at his players 'beautiful black bodies,'" according to an ESPN report.

Everyone in the league knew about it. The great coach Phil Jackson was once asked to explain the Clippers' persistent failure. He summed it up in a word: karma.

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