May 4, 2014

Richard Sterling: A scapegoat for larger sins

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon - Sterling, to put it simply, is a scapegoat, whose ritual sacrifice may make us feel better about ourselves but does absolutely nothing to address the bizarre racial dynamics of American professional sports, and still less the institutional racism of our society. His only defenders are a handful of right-wing Twitter trolls who misunderstand the constitutional guarantee of free speech, or who fail to grasp that the NBA is not some socialistic Big Brother nanny state, but rather a private billionaires’ club with wide latitude to set and enforce its own rules, capricious or otherwise. It’s easy to mock those people, but in their bewildered fashion they’re flailing toward a valid point: Sterling was punished for making private remarks that threatened to embarrass the NBA’s burgeoning global brand, but only because they wound up on TMZ and fueled a zillion tabloid news stories. Sterling’s well-documented history of alleged racial discrimination and noxious racial attitudes – encompassing not just words but illegal conduct that injured real people in the real world — never caused that kind of stink, and didn’t matter.

I’m not defending Sterling in the slightest by saying that this saga does not in fact show America at its best, and does not demonstrate how far we have come and what enlightened attitudes we now hold. It demonstrates something entirely different: Our eagerness to be distracted by symbolic narratives that embody a lot less meaning than they seem to, rather than confronting conditions of genuine social crisis and economic contradiction. We love the Sterling drama precisely because it’s a great story, with undertones of 18th-century comic opera: The aging lecher, representative of the ancien rĂ©gime, who throws over his wife for the younger mistress, who turns out to be a complicated character possessed of her own agenda; the private utterance (in French farce it would be a letter) whose revelation strips the ancient troglodyte of his power and reduces him to bathos. All that’s needed is the Figaro, the younger lover with a democratic spirit who sweeps up the girl and sets everything right. That would be us.


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