The controversy surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his racist comments have captured the full attention of the sports world (and beyond), turning one of the greatest stretches of the NBA calendar into a major moment in the league's racial and social history. Outrage has been understandably loud and constant, many have wondered how the NBA had not already dealt with Sterling's persistent prejudice and poor behavior, and virtually everyone cannot abide by a future in which Sterling continues to own the Clippers.
Through it all, there has been an open question as to how the Clippers' coaches and players would and should respond. While players only briefly considered a boycott of Sunday's playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, they staged a silent protest by turning their shooting shirts inside-out during warmups.
Head coach Doc Rivers has preferred to focus on the task of beating the Warriors and progressing towards his team's goal of a championship. On Monday, Rivers issued an official statement explaining his approach, the mindset of the organization, and the difficulties of juggling responsibilities during this time. Via Clippers.com:
“I would like to reiterate how disappointed I am in the comments attributed to [Donald Sterling] and I can’t even begin to tell you how upset I am and our players are. Today, I had a meeting with the members of our organization. When you are around all these people, you realize they are just as upset and embarrassed by the situation and it does not reflect who they really are. That was what I got from all of them. They are now a part of this and they are upset at this. But, they are all going to hang in there and so are we - I can tell you that as a group and as a team. From our fans’ standpoint, I want to say that they have been amazing, I can tell you that. We need unbelievable support right now from other people and I’m hoping we get that. My hope is that whatever the fans do, it is as one. I think that is what we all should do.
“We want to make the right decisions here. We’re doing our very best to try and do that. We know that fans are in a dilemma as well. We want them to cheer for their players and their team. It will always be their players and their team. From the fans that I have heard from, that’s how they feel. ‘This is my team. These are my players that I’m cheering for and that’s not going to change.’ I hope STAPLES Center is packed and people are cheering for the players. The players are now in the middle of this, and they have to deal with it.
“We are all trying to figure out everything as it goes and just do our best and we hope that it is the right answer. I’m still going to do my best and do what I think is best for the team and for everybody in this case. It is very difficult because there are so many emotions in this. This is a very emotional subject, this is personal.
“My belief is that the longer we keep winning, the more we talk about this. I believe that is good. If we want to make a statement - I believe that is how we have to do it. I think that is the right way to do it, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t wrestle with it every day and every moment. That is the difficult part.
“We are all doing our best here. Our players are doing their best. There are a lot of people involved in this. From one man’s comments, a lot of people have been affected and the conversations that we’re all having do need to be had.”
In many ways, Rivers makes a fairly simple statement on the importance of facing conflicts as a unified group, the team remaining focused on its on-court goals, and everyone engaging in meaningful discussion about the issues at play. He is trying to turn the controversy into a teachable moment without losing sight of the Clippers' desires as a professional basketball team.
Apart from that basic air of positivity, though, this statement is the work of someone who understands that he and his team are in a very complicated situation. Rivers and the players he coaches now have to deal with many competing responsibilities and desires. On the most obvious level, they have had their playoff run — a time of immense focus, particularly for people who know the pressures of the playoffs — interrupted by a horrific story. At the same time, they have to consider that their going through with that process stands to enrich someone with despicable personal views and blatant disregard for the humanity of many of his employees. On top of all that, Sterling was already known for similar statements and related actions. They must also contend with the knowledge that they agreed to be employed by Sterling prior to these new comments.
What is the proper response? How should someone juggle an immediate reaction to a terrible act with his long-term goals? A boycott, while arguably the appropriate act in a theoretical moral sense, would keep the Clippers from achieving a goal they have worked their entire lives to complete and potentially hurt their careers if seen as too extreme by the general public. Not doing anything in protest could mark them out as lacking the necessary social consciousness. There is no easy answer.
The great success of Rivers's statement is that he seems to understand that everyone will approach these questions differently. This belief has played out in practice, too. When the Clippers engaged in their shooting-shirt protest, Rivers said that he was "not thrilled with it" but understands their move. From his own perspective, he has said he is not sure he can return to the Clippers next season even as he attempts to keep the team on a path to a championship right now. Clearly, this is someone who has not decided his own course of action, let alone a man who has determined he knows what is best for others in the same situation.
The NBA as an organization must react to Sterling's comments with swift action for a host of reasons both moral and functional. But the Clippers, as a collection of people, have different decisions to face. The best any of us can do for them is to respect the complications inherent in these choices and trust that they come to their conclusions honestly.
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