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Sterling decision a sign of progress

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The general consensus is justice has been done in the case of Donald Sterling, the controversial owner of the NBA team the Los Angeles Clippers. The decision announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban Sterling for life and fine him $2.5 million (and proceed with the intent to force him to sell the team) in response to his recorded racist remarks about African-Americans has been hailed as the only response NBA officials could have made.

Moreover, the tough punishment is a defining statement on how far the U.S. has come in the 50 years.

As far as can be determined, the first time a professional sports owner got into trouble as a result of racism was during the 1990s when Marge Schott, the controlling owner and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise from 1984 to 1999, was accused repeatedly of making racist and bigoted comments about African-Americans, Jews, the Japanese and gays. She was eventually banned from running the team and sold her interest. Yet while controversy engulfed her, there was no threat of a player or fan boycott.

Schott, born in 1928, was regarded a relic of another age. In fact, her racist opinions, like Sterling's (who was born in 1934), were a product of the world both of them grew up in during the 1930s and '40s. (Sterling's parents were Jewish immigrants who undoubtedly confronted anti-Semitism, but this does not seem to have had any bearing on his repugnant attitudes. As an adult, he changed his name from Tokowitz to Sterling, shedding his Jewish roots.)

The attitudes of that era, in which white Protestant supremacy was the accepted norm throughout North America, had endured for centuries, and continued to do so until well after the Second World War. Only then did American and Canadian governments gradually begin to institute anti-discrimination laws. The prejudice remained ingrained, however, and has not entirely vanished.

This racist reality was most evident in the segregated American south. Clifford Roberts, one of the founders of the Augusta National Golf Club and chairman of the Masters tournament from 1934 to 1976, once declared that, "As long as I'm alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black." And, it was not until 1975 that an African-American golfer, Lee Elder, competed. But the racism also existed in a more understated, though just as prejudicial and discriminatory, way in cities like New York, Chicago, Toronto and Winnipeg.

Such attitudes did not change easily, which makes the near-universal condemnation of Sterling all the more meaningful.

Consider that 50 years ago, in July 1964, and a century after Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery, the U.S. federal government passed the Civil Rights Act, which "outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

At the time, the owner of Washington, D.C.'s NFL franchise, the Redskins, was George Preston Marshall. He was one of the founders of the team and had come up with "Redskin," as racist a name for a sports team as there ever has been.

Marshall promoted the team throughout the south as "Dixie's team," and as late as 1961 absolutely refused to draft any black players, though African-Americans were playing for other NFL teams by 1946. It was only in 1961, after the city built the team a new stadium on federal land that Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior, brought enough pressure to bear on Marshall, threatening to forbid the team the use of the new facilities, that he begrudgingly signed a black player the following season.

Despite his Donald Sterling-like attitudes, he remained the Redskins' owner until his death in 1969. In his will, he left the bulk of his estate, $6 million, for the establishment of a team foundation to help underprivileged children with one stipulation: That no money shall be used for "any purpose which supports or employs the principal of racial integration in any form."

According to Massachusetts historian Thomas G. Smith, the author of the 2011 book Showdown about the Marshall-Udall fight, within a year, the courts ruled the proviso was illegal so the foundation's work was never hampered by it.

On the other hand, the Redskins' current owner Daniel Snyder, has adamantly refused to change the objectionable name of the team, keeping that part of Marshall's legacy intact.

 

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2014 0

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