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There was a time when Donald Sterling was a joke. His Los Angeles Clippers got all the laughs, but he got all the credit. Sterling was the absent mind behind the NBA's longest-running vaudeville revue, his stinginess serving as the fuel behind the rust standard for ineptitude.
He was condemned with ridicule for coldly running a losing basketball team, a sin deemed unforgivable by most. Sterling was a skinflint, so despicable that you couldn't help but wonder if the man who makes most of his money from real estate was only concerned with building a dream home in the most famous tropical enclave of them all: hell.
Now, Sterling signs free agents and signs his best players to extensions. Maybe he's OK after all?
Or, maybe not.
Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice on Monday for housing discrimination. Though Sterling has no problem paying black people millions of dollars to play basketball, the feds allege that he refused to rent apartments in Beverly Hills and Koreatown to black people and people with children.
Talk about strange. A man notoriously concerned with profit maximization refuses to take money from those willing to shell it out to live in the most overrated, overpriced neighborhood in Southern California? That same man, who gives black men tens of millions of dollars every year, refuses to take a few thousand a month from folks who would like to crash in one of his buildings for a while? You gotta love racism, the only force in the world powerful enough to interfere with money-making.
Sterling may have been a joke, but nothing about this is funny. In fact, it's frightening and disturbing that classic racism like this might still be in play.
What's even more disturbing? Sterling was sued for housing discrimination by 19 plaintiffs in 2003, according to The Associated Press. In this case, Sterling was accused of trying to drive blacks and Latinos out of buildings he owned in Koreatown. In November, Sterling was ordered to pay a massive settlement in that case. Terms were not disclosed, but the presiding judge said this was "one of the largest" settlements ever in this sort of matter. The tip of the iceberg: Sterling had to play $5 million just for the plaintiffs' attorney fees.
And the coup de grace? Neither that case, nor the more recent one, has qualified as big news.
The tragedy of Maurice Clarett is big news. So are the legal adventures of the Cincinnati Bengals, Rhett Bomar's inability to recognize that not all money is good money, Floyd Landis' daily excuse, and teenager Michelle Wie's being too nervous to tell a grown man she would no longer pay him to carry her stuff around a golf course.
But Donald Sterling's refusing to offer housing to blacks and Latinos? Must not have that sizzle.
On the section of the Los Angeles Times Web site dedicated to the Clippers, the lawsuit against Sterling can be found only on the AP news wire. On ESPN.com, it takes a few clicks to find the story.
And people think issues about race are lightning rods? Not quite.
Nearly two decades ago, former Dodgers general manager Al Campanis lost his job after rambling on "Nightline" that blacks lacked "the necessities" required of a field or general manager. Nine months after Campanis' faux pas, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was fired from CBS's "The NFL Today" after his comments as an armchair geneticist. Though he had no Punnett squares to back his claims, Snyder shared with a reporter his theory that blacks' perceived athletic superiority was a byproduct of breeding experiments administered by slave owners.
Both stories were huge news, and both Campanis and Snyder were fired for their statements. To this day, both gentlemen are held up as proof that racism and sports don't mix.
If only that were true. The reality is that Campanis' firing fell in line with a larger axiom -- stupidity is a fireable offense. Snyder's dismissal proved something more complex. Coming on television visibly intoxicated is frowned upon, as are references to slavery, but neither is too severe. Do both at the same time, however, and you'll be looking for work.
Campanis and Snyder were guilty of talking too much on national television. Each said something problematic, but neither said anything particularly evil. Black people are too stupid to manage a baseball team? Sounds like something one of my old math teachers would say. Football players are the progeny of uber-slaves? Sounds like what it was -- sauced-up banter.
But black people aren't welcome on Donald Sterling's property? That's really jacked up.
Discrimination in the housing market has been crippling to the attempts blacks and Latinos have made to empower themselves economically. The worst examples are in the sales market -- there's a wealth of urban economic evidence showing how the inability to buy homes has affected the black-white wealth gap -- but such behavior in the rental market is just as damaging. Consider that, frequently, moving to a fancy neighborhood like Beverly Hills provides the best chance a family has at placing its children in decent schools, something we all can agree is pretty important.
People tend to think of the more annoying manifestations of racism, like how hard it can be for non-white people to get cabs in New York. But in the grand scheme, stuff like that is trivial. What Sterling is accused of is as real as penitentiary steel.
But for some reason, that hasn't qualified as big news in most places.
Sterling deserves to be raked over the coals for this. Judgment should be reserved on the suit the Department of Justice filed until a verdict or settlement has been reached. But he's already paid millions in the face of similar allegations.
It's not Sterling's job to bring attention to his ethical transgressions. That's the job of the media. And as it relates to Sterling, we have dropped the ball.
In American sports, issues of race are unavoidable. But when we turn our attention to those issues, we tend to do so in discussion of sensational topics. And we do so with little more than passing interest.
We're more concerned with people saying stupid things, transgressions that even undeniable racists could criticize. People from every walk of life are entitled to slam someone for talking too much.
In Sterling's case, we're confronted with racism in its most problematic form. And up until now, we've said very little. Many of us lent thousands of words to lambaste the Vikings' stripper party last season, but we've been silent on this?
That doesn't mean we should campaign for Sterling to lose his team. But we should wonder what David Stern thinks of there being an owner in his league who seems to have some disturbing views about most of his players. We should ask Sterling what he thinks of his players.
More than just talking about racism and debating whether it exists in a few situations, we should attack it directly, especially when it's so destructive and glaring.
It was fun to laugh at Donald Sterling when he was a joke. Now that we know what he's up to when he's being serious, he deserves a lot more attention.
Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at email@example.com.