As a young boy, my mother caught me in the private act of speaking hatefully about another. She marched me to the bathroom, pointed to the Ivory soap, and demanded that I “wash my mouth out.” My life and conscience changed in that moment. I learned hateful words have consequences and must be washed from our hearts and minds.
By acting promptly and emphatically against Donald Sterling, the powerful owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for making hateful, racist comments about others, which are further evidenced by his discriminatory actions in the housing market, the National Basketball Association provided Mr. Sterling with a costly and well-deserved mouth-washing. The NBA is teaching us a valuable lesson in life.
There are few teachers more effective than mothers and sports, as America is learning in the midst of the Sterling case, a case that has rightfully commanded the attention of the media for days. As a great teacher, sports does much to shape our society.
For years, I taught constitutional law to second-year law students. We spent two days discussing the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954. In Brown, the Supreme Court held that state laws mandating publicly funded segregated schools were unconstitutional. I taught my students that the Brown case led the movement to integrate society, a major step in eliminating racism.
I was wrong. When I started teaching and studying about sports, without in any way disparaging the Brown decision, I came to see that sports was the likely leader in the effort to bring attention to racial inequity and thereby integrate America.
Professional football led the way. Kenny Washington, a running back out of UCLA, played with the San Francisco Clippers in 1944-45 and signed a contract with the L.A. Rams on March 21, 1946.
Football, however, was not yet America’s game. Baseball was. It was Jackie Robinson’s courageous debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, as movingly chronicled in the recent movie "42" that captured the attention of most Americans.
Not surprisingly, in 1950, still four years prior to the Brown decision, Chuck Cooper was the first African-American drafted by the National Basketball Association. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, in turn, was the first African-American to sign a contract in the NBA.
Sports has been a leader in the effort to eliminate racism. It is doing so again in the Sterling case, but this is not a phenomenon unique to the United States. Courageous sports figures and entertainers were leaders in eliminating apartheid in South Africa.
In 1973, Arthur Ashe, a world-class tennis player, broke the South African color barrier by being the first black athlete to compete in the racially exclusive world of South African tennis. Ashe was criticized for playing rather than boycotting, but his dominating presence on and articulateness off the court spoke legions to the people of South Africa.
A decade later, Ashe and Harry Belafonte drew worldwide attention to apartheid when they co-chaired Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. Ashe led in the embargo of all sporting contact with South Africa, which did much to fuel the move to integrate South Africa. It is not surprising, therefore, when asked who he would most like to meet when he traveled to the United States as South Africa’s new leader, Nelson Mandela replied, “Arthur Ashe.”
Sports is a leader in shaping social consciousness and bringing change. Players and management in the NBA are again pricking our conscience, and change will come on many fronts.
Some have asked whether I think the NBA will also proverbially wash out the mouths of players and coaches if they speak in hateful ways. The answer is simple. They already have.
In 1997, in the midst of the playoffs, the NBA leveled the largest fine it had ever imposed on an active player. Dennis Rodman was fined for making hateful remarks against Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
The NBA is consistent: Hate speech should be eliminated. To eliminate it, hateful speech has to come with a heavy price tag.
If the NBA commissioner and owners stay the course and act decisively against Donald Sterling, one of their own, they will make my mother proud. I share in her dream: a world where our children and grandchildren will be free from the harms that attend hateful speech and the discriminatory actions it often begets.
Rodney K. Smith is a professor of practice and director of the Sports Law and Business Program, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University. This piece has also appeared in USA Today.
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