Leveraging against a weak target: Donald Sterling’s reputation

The straw that breaks the camel’s back isn’t always the largest one.  The tempest surrounding the LA Clippers and owner Donald Sterling illustrates much about how social movements work–when they work.

When Sterling’s ostensibly private and clearly offensive comments about blacks, including people in his employ, hit the public, outrage boiled over everywhere–including among the owner’s accomplished and highly paid employees.

The members of the San Diego Clippers threw their warmup suits down and wore jerseys inside-out to hide the Clippers logo during their pregame routine.  Players on other teams joined in sympathy and solidarity, donning black socks for games in a bit of not so subtle and not so disruptive resistance.  In the middle of the National Basketball Association’s playoffs, the symbolic moves here suggested that the players might be willing to do more–like refuse to play the games.

Surely, other owners and the league’s management took offense at Sterling’s comments; the Clippers’ owner was already recognized as a problem.  Sterling underinvested in his team, neglected the interests of the league more broadly, and was a recurrent public relations problem.  There was no residual of goodwill for him to draw upon when things went wrong.  More significantly, an owner or staffer could actually agree with every appalling sentiment expressed and still want to get rid of Sterling.  Sponsors suspended deals with the Clippers team, the players were offended and organized, and press everywhere was awful.  Punishment, even banishment, is good business.  A new commissioner was particularly well-positioned to recognize this and act forcefully, buying himself good will and good press in the process.  Almost everyone wins.

More generally, movements can be effective  by targeting the vulnerable, that is respondents who have something to lose that they care about.  The NBA already had all kinds of good reasons to get rid of Donald Sterling; the players’ collective action gave management a push to do something they might want to do anyway.

There’s an odd additional note to offer here: The Los Angeles chapter of NAACP was set to give a lifetime achievement award to Donald Sterling when the story broke, and had accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the real estate tycoon (who had paid nearly $3 million to settle a federal case of housing discrimination).  (See Alison Griswold at Slate.)  The award was for money, clearly, and the civil rights group has since decided to return the money and cancel the award.

But advocacy organizations are dependent upon large sums that most people can’t provide, and reputations aren’t always Sterling….  Certainly, there are worse things for this billionaire’s money to go to–and they do.  There’s an inherent dilemma in the dependence upon big money that movement groups need to raise. I’ll wait for your answers on this one.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Leveraging against a weak target: Donald Sterling’s reputation

  1. I think this was more of a case of an economic straw breaking the camel’s back, not a social straw. Sterling has been historically tolerated by the league because his past actions haven’t hurt the league’s (and the other owner’s) revenue enough to justify the downside that the owners must now face to remove him. Voting him out, the only legal avenue for stripping him of his ownership rights, will create an uncomfortable precedent that the other owners have not been eager to set. However, given the clear danger of negative public sentiment and economic penalties in the marketplace, it appears as though the owners will now take a rationale step to preserve their own self-interests.

    • Business, as we say, is business. I actually thought about slipping in a reference from the Godfather. Tessio, a leader of a rival family, knows he’s going to be killed for plotting to kill Michael, and stresses that his decision was never personal, just business. I suspect that NBA owners will make the same argument. Explicit racism in this context just doesn’t pay.

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