On Jerry Reinsdorf and Donald Sterling

When the psychotic ranting of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling went public this week, I think we all felt a little ashamed that such a person a) lived and breathed and b) was somehow richer than everyone everywhere. But the moment that NBA Commissioner Adam Sliver banned Sterling from the league for life, our horror and embarrassment turned into collective celebration. Racists be banished! Our faith in society restored!

Rejoicing came from sports team owners who are not vomitous cultural anachronisms, including our own Jerry Reinsdorf (and son Michael):

We completely support Commissioner Silver’s decision today regarding Clippers owner Donald Sterling … The league’s decision underscores the severity and reprehensible nature of the comments attributed to Donald Sterling … Discrimination and prejudice of any kind have no place in sports or in our society.

Who would disagree? But “discrimination and prejudice” take many forms. Bigoted language is one of the obvious manifestations but there are others that are more insidious. Because in the end, racism (like sexism) is about power: or one “race” wielding and maintaining power over another. And this is a project in which Jerry Reinsdorf actively takes part.

This may come as a shock to some, considering Jerry Reinsdorf’s very public advocacy for racial integration and charity for the city’s poor. Reinsdorf has taken steps to diversify his front offices and coaching staffs and alter a sports-management culture where racial stereotypes have long precluded opportunities for African Americans and Latinos. Meanwhile, Reinsdorf’s White Sox and Bulls charity organizations have earned him national recognition as a philanthropist.

Sports historian Sean Dinces describes these unselfish acts as “an altruistic sleight of hand.” Reinsdorf is interested in racial equality only as long as it doesn’t hurt his bottom line. In fact, he’s willing to tolerate discreet forms of discrimination and prejudice if they bring him more wealth and power.

The White Sox and Bulls have enjoyed billions of dollars (not an exaggeration!) in public funds and tax breaks from the city, county, and state. The teams give back very little in return. And so Reinsdorf benefits from a system of subsidies that in effect stymies resources for social programs and services for the urban lower class. What’s in it for them are maybe a couple thousand low-wage, part-time jobs as ushers, janitors, and concession workers.

Low-wage workers in Chicago are disproportionately people of color. In our city the percentage of African Americans with incomes below poverty level is 33 percent, and for Latinos it's 24 percent—both much higher than the whites at 10 percent.

And while the minimum wage has decreased with respect to inflation in recent decades, the White Sox are worth an estimated 35 times the price Jerry Reinsdorf paid for the team in 1981 ($20 million to $695 million), and the Bulls are worth more than 60 times Reinsdorf’s original 1985 purchase price ($16 million to $1 billion).

In short, sports investments have paid huge dividends for Reinsdorf’s ownership groups, while the minority workforce earns poverty wages and worse city services to boot.

Meanwhile, on the South Side, more wealthy, educated, whites enjoy the entertainment value of our taxpayer dollars. According to the White Sox, 67 percent of the fans who attend games are white, nearly 70 percent attended college, and nearly 70 percent make more than $50,000 per year. These are all much higher than average for the city population.

The pricing out of the African American and Latino lower class at ballgames is part of a business strategy, if Perri Irmer, former ISFA executive, is to be believed. In Irmer’s wrongful termination lawsuit against Reinsdorf her lawyer claims:

Reinsdorf did not support Perri Irmer’s efforts to bring more community members into the ballpark through her targeted selection of minority youth and community groups to receive an increased share of the available unsold tickets. Reinsdorf viewed these efforts as being contrary to the White Sox brand, which he viewed as appealing primarily to persons from the suburbs or other areas of the city who were perceived as having little contact with minority communities.

In the corporate world, when “doing good” comes into conflict with “good business,” well, investors and shareholders don’t buy up equity to spread good will. It’s only when the two align that the humanitarian agenda is advanced.

Following Sterling’s sentencing, sports historian Adrian Burgos Jr. shared what should be a common concern for the praise being showered upon the NBA:

When it comes to issues of racial equality the means justify the ends. Because there are limits to market-based progressivism. Maybe the most important is that it doesn’t allow us to honestly assess the system that creates growing social inequality and somehow continues to privilege a small segment of the population disproportionately. And what we’re left with is a condemnation of a racist-misogynist pig like Sterling on the one hand and on the other hand a circle of municipal power brokers that looks like this (note: all white and male):



As I watched the Donald Sterling fiasco unfold and Jerrry Reinsdorf and other NBA owners take their moral stands, I thought of African American police major Bunny Colvin’s assessment of racism in HBO’s The Wire. After telling a story of a white funeral parlor director in a black neighborhood who would tell African Americans to their faces that he wanted to bury them all, Colvin admits to having a lot of respect for the man. “'Cause, unlike most folks,” says Colvin, “I always knew where he stood.”

Donald Sterling is a abhorrent racist abomination, but unlike Jerry Reinsdorf, at least we know where he stands.