Donald Sterling’s Rich White Guy Problem

The Clippers owner isn't just wrong on race. He's bad on class issues, too.

A lot has been made about the comments (allegedly) made by Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling about race. But I think his comments about class are also kind of interesting. Here he (allegedly) is, talking about Clippers’ players:

The woman reminded him that the Clippers roster is primarily black.

“I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses,” said the man alleged to be Sterling. “Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”

“Who makes the game?” he continued. “Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

And hey, has there ever been a more perfect encapsulation of capital’s view of labor?

Me? I’m pretty sure the league doesn’t exist at all without the efforts of its workers — which is to say, its players. People buy tickets to watch the players. People buy the jerseys of players. Networks pay hundreds of millions of dollars to show players playing on TV. The owner, when he’s seen during these broadcasts, is seen for a few moments if at all.

In other words: The players, the workers, generate whatever monetary value the team has to Sterling. Yet he sees himself as the provider! He gives them food and clothes and cars and houses. He makes the game.

I’m not being Marxist here: The NBA isn’t a global phenomenon without owners to organize teams and an administrative office that exploits the game for maximum exposure and popularity. “Both labor and capital are necessary, but neither is sufficient,” a conservative friend of mine observed this week. “Take away the players and you have no game and no league. Take away the franchise owners, and the marketing and capitalization they’ve brought to the NBA, and you have pickup games on the playground.”

Absolutely. But the product, at the end of the day, isn’t just the fruit of the players’ labors — it is the players’ labors.

To be fair, the NBA itself seems to understand this. Former Commissioner David Stern, whatever his myriad faults, always talked about the league’s “partners” in the players’ union. The salary cap system in the league is also a revenue-sharing system — with players guaranteed under their collective contract to receive roughly half the league’s revenue in the form of salaries. (Locally, the hard-tanking Sixers came dangerously close this season to ducking under the salary “floor” required by the revenue-sharing terms of that contract.)

Sterling himself doesn’t seem to understand the mutually beneficial nature of that partnership. If the tape is to be believed, he sees himself as the sole creator and source of value in his team, and his fellow owners the source of value in the league — and in that he seems to resemble all those rich old white guys who fret that the mere proposal of slightly higher marginal tax rates means that Hitler has been reborn in the person of Barack Obama.

Thing is: Donald Sterling appears to be an exceptional racist — because there are a lot of racists who’d love to have their picture taken with Magic Johnson. I don’t think he’s an exceptional capitalist, though. He really thinks he makes the league. That should probably offend players on the Clippers almost as much as his (alleged) racism.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.