FOR ALL OF the public hand-wringing and all of the unequivocal statements made to the discredit of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling the last few weeks, most of the voices speaking out on the issue have chosen to hew to a remarkably conservative line of thought. As we often see in the sports press, most of the parties obligated to opine on the subject have attacked the issue with an almost legalistic focus on specifics, quickly achieved consensus with one another, and then beat the living fuck out of it.
The agreement regarding Sterling has been to denounce his views as abhorrent and then to absolutely sweep under the rug any of the implications it leaves hanging. There has been far too much high-fiving over this. ESPN out-schlocked even itself covering the Clippers’ subsequent playoff victory over the Warriors, which came the night after civil rights crusader and part-time NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned the owner from even thinking about the NBA ever again. Following this swift decision, which no doubt bent Dr. King’s cosmic arc a bit closer to justice, fans were then morally free to attend the Clippers game and hold up heartfelt signs. No word on whether the ticket money from all these social justiceniks was routed to somewhere besides Donald Sterling’s pocket. (Probably because it wasn’t.)
Nothing illustrated the sham victory of deposing Sterling more than the Clippers’ hearty embrace of his estranged wife Rochelle. “I am not a racist,” she said when the tape was first released. “I never have been, I never will be. The team is the most important thing to my family.” Instructive words, these. Just in the same way that “racism” in this story has been portrayed as a binary medical condition, something akin to pregnancy, so does her statement admit that her take on race is relevant only as it pertains to the men who her family employs to play basketball. She was smart to have specified that, lest one conflate her feelings on Clippers blackness with the feelings she is known to have about the unremarkably black and Latino tenants of her residential properties. During her day job as Cruella de Vil, Shelly Sterling has accumulated nearly the same record of outright racism as her piece of shit husband, who, let’s not forget, she has been married to for almost 60 years. She once impersonated the health inspector to obtain a racial census of her buildings. But no, she is not “a” racist. The tests came back negative.
As these morality plays so often happen, all that matters is that Rochelle Sterling can claim the virtue of having not been recorded on the surreally racist tape that did in the old man. Her reward? A pass from the media and a good word from Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the likeliest person to emerge as the protagonist when they make the Sterling TV movie. “It’s a tough one for Shelly, really,” Rivers said. “She didn’t do anything wrong. You have compassion for her.” Indeed, it must have been hell for this wealthy and bitter estranged wife to watch the world pile on her ex-husband and his young mistress.
Sports media’s conformist coverage of this story is de rigueur when any media, really, is confronted with a news event that reveals one small facet of an enormous and uncomfortable cultural truth. The assassination of Osama bin Laden, for example, could have served as an opportunity for Americans to reexamine the erosions that our system of due process suffered in the U.S.’s pursuit of al Qaeda after 9/11. It could have been a point at which our salient voices asked, The emotional victory of the War on Terror is now won. What cultural mandate is the remainder of this campaign founded on? Instead, we got B-roll of roaring crowds and the president on his victory tour. The event was processed into a humdrum media spectacle, a spiritual victory with a hollow, manufactured center, an American Idol finale. Most news broadcasts showed American crowds uniformly engaged in “jubilation,” which quickly asserted itself as the preferred term for describing the reaction to bin Laden’s death. That’s how you know you’re getting shallow news coverage: when a story’s terminology is uncannily parroted by most outlets, it means that simulacrum, or at least convention, has replaced incision.
The slogan in the Donald Sterling scandal is “There is no place for this in our game.” This is one of those weirdly eloquent phrases that loses its honesty in robotic mimesis, like when a tech support worker says “I see” too many times as you describe your problem over the phone. It’s the perfect response to the situation at hand—sympathetic, non-committal, attentive—which makes it that much clearer why it was written into the script. The concept of there being “no room for that in our game” operates likewise. It assumes a high moral vantage and conjures an image of crowding out, of post-racial magnanimity having so overtaken the NBA and the culture at large that small-mindedness just starves for sunlight and dies. The sentiment is more powerful and optimistic than merely condemning Sterling’s statements as ignorant; it’s a dismissal. It’s a verdict. Adam Silver chose the line to punctuate his ruling on Tuesday: “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.”
It may be overly final, too. Such a strong stance was doubtless undertaken by the league in order to preclude any further nibbling into the meat of the larger problem. Namely, that Donald Sterling, as an owner in American professional sports, is only one of a tiny overclass of white men who own the exploits of black men. FiveThirtyEight studied the diversity of professional sports ownership: of 49 majority owners in the NBA, only one, Michael Jordan, is black. (That the lone minority among these 48 rich white people had to be the sport’s greatest player to get there recalls Chris Rock’s joke about his neighbor not needing to make it to the “dentist hall of fame.”) Meanwhile, the league is 76% black.
The “plantation mentality,” as it has been called in a few progressive outlets, is obviously the real narrative. Project how Sterling’s ouster will look 50 or 100 years down the line. It becomes a blip consistent with the larger context of owner-versus-player lockouts, a paltry concussion settlement from the NFL toward ex-players—fought tooth-and-nail, by the way—and the NCAA’s entire larcenous existence. Future generations might wonder what the big deal was in an environment in which David Stern, a Jewish man, managed a league full of black men and kept it in the family by handing over the reins to another Jewish man.
Such a perspective will easily identify the primacy of the rich white owners in all of this. Everything done by professional leagues, whether enacting player-safety rules to indemnify themselves against injury liability or ostracizing the most provable racist in the whole racist system, is undertaken to protect the owners’ investments.
After all, that’s what a sports franchise is: a crown jewel on the balance sheet of some remote industrial baron. And as the cities who have experienced worse know, spouting bigotry on tape is a relatively benign thing for an owner to do. Far more insidious is the practice of actually moving a team away from the fans who not only generate the organization’s revenue, but care about them, win and lose with them, and see themselves in the team. In other words, the people who give the team value in the first place. The biggest scandal in sports is the fact that these mammoth civic touchstones are, in keeping with today’s Second Gilded Age, mere playthings for billionaires. A city thinks it has a real rallying point until a dreaded Irsay or Modell chooses to jingle their plutocratic chains and abduct an entire corpus of shared history to a different goddamn city.
The whole clubby setup of our major leagues is a threat to the fundamentally great thing about professional sports: their function as civic rallying points. So my problem isn’t with Donald Sterling, though good riddance. Nor is it simply with the enormous, gaping discrepancy in the demographies of professional leagues’ labor and capital. These phenomena are the tip of the iceberg.
I have a problem with the current model of team ownership in general. Luckily, we can replace it.
Spend enough time reading and thinking about professional sports, and you will at some point arrive at the realization that it is a diversion as trivial as any reality show. As anyone who has wasted a morning watching two or more SportsCenter cycles can attest, the energy you spend caring about sports is energy deducted from that which can be put toward your real life. Apart from athletes and gamblers, sports have no tangible impact on a fan’s quality of life. They’re here because they’re popular, and because media companies cling desperately to the only attraction left on live TV.
The benefit of following sports, then, stems totally from the emotional investment that we fans put into it. The wellspring of the vast majority of that emotion is not an innate love of a particular game or a team, but fealty to family and community allegiances. This is why teams affiliate themselves with specific geographies. By doing so, they become symbols attaching their fans to a primal, essential tribalism.
Humans have an innate clan instinct, and sports teams are its latter-day totems. Witness the rise of Europeans’ obsession with national-level soccer competitions at approximately the point in history when they stopped actually warring with each other. Witness the rivalries that sharing a city engenders between two clubs; it’s an update on fighting over the watering hole. This is behavior that comes out one way or another. Organized sports satisfy this primal clannishness in a wholesome, modern way. They suture neighbors into a fanbase and provide nearly inanimate entities—that is, the groups of millionaire athletes whom the fans will never meet—for them to cathect with their shared emotions. A sports team is a reflection of pride of place. That’s what it is good for.
The single-owner model threatens this relationship. There are numerous frustrations inherent in a cherished team being a mere asset belonging to one individual (erratic hiring decisions and parsimony come to mind) but none more so than an owner’s threat to unilaterally decamp for a different city, thereby destroying an icon of civic pride. It’s happened many times. The most recent example is the Seattle Supersonics’ departure for Oklahoma City, but it is a loss that many cities know well.
One signal example is Winnipeg, Canada. The Winnipeg Jets played in front of one of the National Hockey League’s most loyal fanbases for fifteen years, despite being the league’s second-smallest market. A confluence of factors in the 1990s began to put financial pressure on the smaller Canadian clubs, and the city began to realize that it didn’t have the leverage to retain the team. An American consortium finally bought the Jets after no local buyer emerged. They moved to Phoenix. The two main reasons argued for Winnipeg’s inability to keep the Jets were that their 15,000-seat arena was too small and that American dollars were too expensive for the small-market team to afford.
Those may have been real problems then, but in 2014 they look transient. The hockey team has done poorly in Phoenix, to no one’s surprise, averaging a league-worst 13,775 attendees per game this season. That’s less than Winnipeg’s supposedly undersized arena would have fit. (That arena has since been replaced.) Moreover, American and Canadian dollars have basically been at parity for the last five years, meaning players today wouldn’t necessarily be demanding the more expensive currency. Clearly, Winnipeg could have sustained their beloved Jets better than owner Jerry Colangelo—who slotted the new Phoenix Coyotes next to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in his ample portfolio—predicted.
The best evidence of Winnipeg’s ability to host an NHL team is that they once again have one. The Atlanta Thrashers, victims of yet another genius owner’s attempts to introduce hockey to a southern city, realized that they would fare better in Winnipeg, where people actually care.
The same process of abandonment and resurrection transpired in Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, and Charlotte. If these populations are able to support teams now, did it ever make sense for the owners to leave in the first place? Or is this redundant and chaotic team movement a dance of clueless billionaires, loyal fans be damned?
At the demolition ceremony for Winnipeg Arena, the runty building used to justify the team’s eviction from the city that loved it, hundreds of bereft Jets fans showed up, a decade removed from having a team to root for, and despondently cheered “Go Jets, Go!” to no one. Meanwhile, in that hockey mecca of Phoenix, the team they longed for was at that moment in conservatorship by the league after declaring bankruptcy the previous year. The story ended happily, with Winnipeg getting a Jets team back, but to get there it went through a number of ill-advised, heart-wrenching, and ultimately pointless moves.
If only there was some way to allow supporters of a team the right to protect their civic treasure without subjecting it to the whims of an owner…
My Chicago Bears play with three other teams in the NFL’s NFC North. In addition to being one of the best divisions in the league, these four teams also offer a unique survey of different models of professional sports ownership.
In order from most fan-oriented to least, we start with the Green Bay Packers. This team is owned directly by the actual people of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They are the only major professional team to be so run. City residents are exclusively eligible to own stock in Green Bay Packers, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and as shareholders they elect the board of directors that actually manages the team. They’re also the most transparent team in sports by a wide margin, as they must publicize financial reports for shareholders.
The Chicago Bears have traditional owners, the McCaskey family. They are the scions of George “Papa Bear” Halas, one of the seminal figures in NFL history and the founder of the team. They may be effete aristocrats, but the McCaskey family’s only claim to their status is their ownership of the Bears; they didn’t buy the team with money made in a different industry like so many owners. Though their managerial incompetence has occasionally been maddening, they’re loyal Chicagoans who live and breathe the Bears. If anything, say the analysts, the team’s operations are too stable. No complaints here.
The Detroit Lions are owned by the Ford family of the eponymous auto company. The Fords’ ownership of the Lions is a relatively shining example of professional sports’ potential to genuinely represent a fanbase’s milieu on a large, glamorous stage. Ford is the area’s largest employer, providing jobs to 44,000 people in the Detroit metro area. It’s a feudal relationship, but the arrangement is more authentic, and more tied to the fans, than the kind of carpetbagging owner we see too often in modern sports.
Just such a man owns the Minnesota Vikings. Zygi Wilf is an émigré from Germany who bought the Vikings after hitting it big in real estate. That’s it. No prior affiliation with the Vikings, football, or even Minnesota. The guy lives in New Jersey. Attachment to team: low. Threat level to devoted fanbase: extremely high.
That threat presented itself most overtly in 2011 when Wilf, real estate developer that he is, revealed what had potentially been his aim all along: getting a new stadium built. Zygi, though, didn’t want to pay for it. He knew that the emotional capital of the team was leverage he could use against the taxpayers/fans. So he used it. Interloping into a tense budget situation the same way he waltzed into Minnesota in the first place, Wilf demanded that the state cover more than half the cost of a new stadium or he would relocate the team. It was a drawn-out, tortured negotiation. At the eleventh hour, legislators decided that letting their Vikings go was too much for even fiscal sanity to justify. Against a budget deficit of $1.1 billion, the state held their noses and gave the team $506 million. At the same time as his team’s fans were increasing their government’s deficit by 46% to subsidize his new project—which boosted the team’s value to Wilf and his family by $200 million—the owner closed on a $19 million apartment on New York’s Park Avenue. (“#wilfare” then began trending on social media.)
Compare this all-too-common horror story against the fact that the order in which these four teams are listed here is also roughly the degree of on-field success they’ve each experienced over the past few decades. The Packers, four-time Super Bowl champions, are consistently one of the best-managed teams in football. The Bears have also experienced intermittent success, the Lions less so, and the Vikings, especially in the Wilf era, have been cellar-dwellers. There is no possible way one could justify leadership as a quality a team only gets from having a single owner.
Imagine how long it would take for an owner like Zygi Wilf to move an NFL team like the Green Bay Packers from the nation’s 268th-largest city to Los Angeles or London. Would he even wait for the end of the stadium lease? Thankfully for Packer fans, he’ll never get that chance. No one will.
Nor will any other team get the chance to adopt the Packers’ ownership model. In a transparently self-serving move, NFL league rules hold Green Bay as a unique exemption to the stipulation that league members must be individuals or a “small group.” The NFL and its owners notoriously fear the concept of public ownership, for no other reason than that it dilutes the economic and social benefit of owning a team.
When professional teams are routinely held hostage by scammers like Wilf, bigots like Donald Sterling, or outright liabilities like the New York Mets’ Fred Wilpon, the status quo of team ownership should be the subject of more public frustration.
How could teams escape from these imperious overlords? How could players and fans disrupt the industry that prints so much cash for the athletes and, especially, the owners?
Just wait for a rift to develop between the two. It happens all the time.
The NFL, NBA, and NHL went through successive lockouts in 2011-12. In the latter two cases, they actually resulted in cancelled games. All were a matter of owners and players being unable to agree on collective bargaining terms. When the sides are so far apart that they forfeit revenue, it’s worth asking: what if we didn’t have an adversarial relationship between the league managers and the league’s capital, the players? What if we did away with owners entirely?
It’s easier to imagine than it may seem initially. Start with the fact that team ownership itself is an outdated convention. As far as I can tell, professional teams abide by the current model only because it’s always been that way.
The concept of the modern sports team is barely a century old. In the early days, most athletes held separate jobs and were paid, if at all, on a per-game basis. Rosters weren’t even consistent from one game to the next. In so ad hoc an environment, owners were truly the backers and organizers of a team, as essential to the game as the sponsors and parents who run a Little League.
Entrepreneurial owners like Bill Veeck, Halas, and Lamar Hunt ushered professional sports into a midcentury maturity, and sometimes remained the faces of their teams in a swiftly changing landscape. As revenue models began to change, however, and teams found themselves holding down the same territories they had occupied for decades, professional sports began to cement in format, and with TV, skyrocket in popularity. All the while, the same model of ownership persisted.
Today’s game doesn’t need it. Live sports are by far the world’s most valuable media product. Most of sports’ revenue now comes not from ticket sales, or even necessarily performance, but from broadcasting rights. The days of team owners being the only ones with enough money and interest to defray a league’s operating expenses are long gone.
In the stable climate of latter-day professional sports, league office action has become mostly a hindrance to fans’ enjoyment. The NFL’s endless “No Fun League” legislation or the NBA’s nixing of the deal that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers—instead routing him to the Clippers, thus making them competitive, thus making their idiot owner relevant—are characteristic of the petty roles played by the leagues’ officials when they’re not arguing with players over paying for medical care or salary caps.
What if the next lockout ended not with the players’ association and the league reconciling, but with the players breaking off and forming their own teams? What if the operating cash for the league was fronted by groups of investors and the existing sources of revenue? What if players could take an ownership stake in their teams? Would anyone mind watching a LeBron that’s a part-owner of his team versus a LeBron paid by Carnival Cruise magnate Mickey Arison?
Socialist, I know, but this is how the vast majority of private companies operate. Team owners are not like the CEOs of companies; their strategic decisions have far less impact on revenue than does a real corporate executive. The players are the draw and management is done by the front office, all of whom the owner merely pays. A player-owned league is no different in structure than a company run by the entrepreneurs who founded it in their garage.
Like a large company, the team ownership would be a board which included the franchise’s most important players, who would probably be offered shares as an incentive to join. They would then hire their own management—team presidents, operations managers, PR specialists, GMs, and so on. The player-directors sitting on the executive board with some of their front office officials and, likely, some investors, could have a say in everything from promotional strategies to signees to fill out the roster. Collectively, these player-owned teams would elect their own league office. It’s not so crazy to think of a commissioner appointed not by a few dozen wealthy owners, but by the players’ association.
As for the community’s ties to the team, they would be represented by investors. The athletes themselves probably wouldn’t be able to source sufficient financing to run a major-league team, if they’d even want to go into their own pockets. For this money, they could put out a capital call—bring on a few big sponsors, open up to public ownership and sell shares—and put the appropriate people on the executive board with them. This will drastically decentralize the ownership of the team and allow the community that supports them to have a stake, and a say, in the team, just the way Green Bay residents do.
With a league run by the equivalent of today’s players’ association, many of the difficulties currently confounding professional leagues would dissolve. The merits of additional revenue from an 18-game NFL season would be weighed by the people actually playing them. The same would be true for the intractable concussion scandal, which as of now looks to be the biggest long-term threat to the future of football. It would be players determining how player-safety rules, the likes of which today’s NFL are trying to improvise, should be implemented. Better yet, there would no longer be an entire class of Donald Sterlings owning the exploits of athletes they utterly disrespect.
There would still be coaches and general managers making roster decisions and, if need be, cutting ties with star players, some of whom might be on the team’s executive board. (Boardroom firings are not unusual in most industries.) Most of all, the fanbase’s investor relationship with the team would demand financial transparency and would cement an organic manifestation of the community’s emotional support of the team.
It’s only a radical idea because it’s not the norm today. We watch sports to see players play and coaches coach. The owners are as passive of observers as the rest of us. Most of the time, their only positive involvement is an act of egomania like Jerryworld. (Baseball’s a bit different; in that non-salary capped sport, all operating expenses can be considered out of pocket, but the teams that spend the most pull from the biggest revenues.) Cutting them out of the connection between fans and the teams they love would be a net positive for everyone except the hundred or so billionaires who would be forced to find other status symbols to acquire.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been just such a status symbol for Donald Sterling. For 35 years, the former real estate mogul has been angering the NBA and they have been unable to get rid of him. The lesson sports fans should take from the latest Sterling debacle isn’t that an old, rich, white man holds bigoted views. It’s that the NBA, like all professional sports leagues, are so controlled by men like Sterling that his peers can’t even evict him from their club when they want to. What chance do the players arguing for medical coverage have?
The least Adam Silver could have done was announce a lifetime ban, but his action fell far short of the nobility suggested by the emetic outpourings on ESPN and in sports columns. What’s really called for is a total overhaul of the business model—a total removal of the owners’ control over our teams. The teams collect fans’ ticket money, are broadcast on public airwaves, and play in stadiums often built by taxpayer dollars. Most of all, they are cash cows precisely because of we the people who love them. These teams belong to us. It would be nice to cut out the megalomaniac middlemen.