Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling's Uncomfortable Truth

In all the fury about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's ugly comments, and in all the backslapping about the NBA's unprecedented sanctions, very little has been said about the uncomfortable truth of the matter: Donald Sterling is hardly the only American whose vision isn't colorblind.

Sterling's "crime", of course, was being caught on tape saying the sorts of things that make many of us uncomfortable. Most people, no matter what they really think, have learned that there are some things you just don't say where it can come back to haunt you. But just because folks don't say these things, do you think they don't believe them?

LaSalle University professor Charles Gallagher chairs his school's sociology department and teaches the subject. In a KCBS interview today, he told us about a fascinating and revealing assignment he gives his students. He asks them to spend three weeks noting everything their friends, roommates, teammates, dorm acquaintances, and family members say about race and ethnicity.

Most of what Gallagher's students hear isn't coming from 80-year-old billionaire white guys. It's coming from young, educated Americans. But a lot of it isn't that different from what Sterling said. The real difference: their comments are being made in the context of a confidential, private relationship. The people saying these things are comfortable with the person to whom they're saying them.

In other words: just like Sterling, who didn't call a news conference or issue a press release requesting he see fewer black people in his inner circle. Instead, he made the comment in a private conversation with an intimate friend--a "safe" place that didn't work out so well for Sterling.

Whether you're white, black, Asian, Hispanic or something else, the stark reality is you probably hold beliefs or feelings about race and ethnicity that, if exposed to international scrutiny, might not pass the Sterling test. You're probably aware enough not to blurt them out in a meeting at the office or post them on Facebook.

Ten years ago, Paul Haggis' movie "Crash" won the Best Picture Academy Award. It delved into questions of race and ethnicity in a Los Angeles sliced and diced into enclaves. Many of Haggis' characters glibly dropped the kinds of comments that could get an NBA owner in trouble. Whatever you thought of the film, it opened a conversation about racial attitudes.

Clearly, that conversation hasn't ended. And as Charles Gallagher's students are learning, there are no magic wands you can wave to change what people say and think when they're out of the spotlight.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cue Captain Renault

To paraphrase Captain Renault's immortal line from the film "Casablanca": "I'm shocked, shocked to find that a sports team owner is a jerk!"

It is laughable to watch pundits far and wide demand action right now against the buffoon who's owned the Los Angeles Clippers since 1981. He's been an embarrassment pretty much since Day One. It doesn't take much digging to find the long record of allegations against Sterling--or the things he's said and done on the record.

But now, suddenly, not only are we shocked to hear what appears to be Sterling's own voice uttering this garbage--but the people who work for him are supposed to have done more? Really?

It's not as if we haven't seen this act before in the history of pro sports in America. Marge Schott. Calvin Griffith. George Marshall. Heck, even the felon George Steinbrenner. There are others, of course, for in America, we seldom apply a morals test to wealth. Every now and again, the insular world of pro sports will block someone from the club (Major League Baseball repeatedly prevented reputed organized-crime figure Edward DeBartolo from acquiring a franchise before the NFL let him buy the 49ers), but in general, money talks.

Let me be clear: I don't condone what Sterling is reported to have said in the present controversy any more than I condone his past behavior. He's a boor, a jerk, an embarrassment. When his behavior becomes actionable, it's appropriate to make him pay for it. Former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor sued Sterling five years ago, alleging ace and race discrimination, and lost in a jury trial.

But I question the notion that those who work for Sterling are somehow aiding and abetting his behavior. Plenty has been said and written since this story exploded about how Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his players should be taking more of a stand. Many have suggested that Rivers--widely considered to be a decent man and a brilliant coach--somehow compromised his integrity by accepting Sterling's money to coach the Clippers.

My response: what a crock. Ask yourself if you'd really be prepared to walk away from your job because your company's CEO was a jerk. Do we expect actors, musicians, carpenters or auto salespeople to take a moral stand about their bosses' behavior? Are they somehow complicit because they choose to accept a paycheck to ply their trade?

What should happen now? Obviously, the NBA needs to suspend Sterling (as baseball did with Schott). Beyond that, President Obama's advice seems worth heeding. "When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance," said Mr. Obama, "you don't really have to do anything, you just let them talk."

Or maybe Pete Townshend got it right when he wrote the last line of "We're Not Gonna Take It": "Let's forget you better still."

Monday, April 7, 2014

How To Fix Replay

A week into the Major League Baseball season, it's already clear that the new replay rules need some work.

From the bizarre wait in Oakland while Coco Crisp's walkoff homer was confirmed, to the travesty in Phoenix where an obviously blown call at the plate couldn't be challenged because Bruce Bochy had already lost an appeal, to the uneven application of replay on the new "blocking the plate" rule...I could go on.

But I won't.  Instead, let me offer a few quick suggestions.  If we're going to be stuck with the intrusion of video replay, let's at least make sure it's an aid to umpiring and not what it has already become: a strategic weapon.

First, eliminate the ridiculous idea of having an unseen employee lurking in the background tell a manager whether to challenge a call. Who thinks this is a good idea?

Dumping the "video adviser" job leads to my next suggestion: end the silly sight of a manager easing out of the dugout after a close play, constantly looking over his shoulder while he awaits his video guy's thumbs up/thumbs down recommendation on whether to challenge the call. My recommendation: if a manager steps on the field, he just triggered a challenge. Isn't the whole goal here to catch the obviously-blown calls? If so, a manager (aided by his players on the field) should be able to make an instant decision.

The "blocking the plate" call is a new one for plate umpires. The Giants should have been awarded a run in their season opener when Arizona's Miguel Montero clearly violated the rule.  As it turned out, it didn't matter because Brandon Crawford scored anyway. But Crawford was forced into an awkward sprawl, exposing himself to injury because of Montero's violation. The play was never reviewed, but given the relatively small number of tag-at-the-plate plays and the potential for injury, shouldn't all such plays be reviewed?

We've learned that video review has its limits. The pickoff play in Phoenix that Bochy unsuccessfully challenged is a case in point. Giants video adviser Shawon Dunston told fans the next night that he still believed Matt Cain had the runner picked off. Several angles seemed to confirm that, but one was inconclusive. Is that enough to uphold a call?

I'm also troubled by the notion that the very possibility of a play being reviewed will alter the way the game is played. Case in point: Braves outfielder Justin Upton says he made a mistake by trying to play a ball that got stuck in the outfield padding. On that play, Nationals hitter Ian Desmond roared around the bases for an apparent inside-the-park home run. After review, he was sent back to second base; the unseen umps deciding the ball had been stuck in the padding. Right call--but it could have been made by a conference of umpires at the stadium. Instead, the message to Upton (and others) is: expect help from New York.

Replay advocates keep telling us the system will get better.  Let's hope so. I think we'd all prefer to see managers worrying about late-inning matchups or defensive shifts rather than waiting for the video adviser to tell them which calls to challenge. Isn't any game better decided on the field?