I realized the danger of intemperate comments on anything race-related this week after a post I wrote about Clippers owner Donald Sterling landed me, in the eyes of hockey fans, right up there with Sterling -- whose bigoted comments just got him banned from the NBA.
When Sterling’s remarks first surfaced last week, I was asked to weigh in:
It’s time to retire Donald Sterling, I wrote.
Let the real estate magnate take his millions and buy a hockey team. Then he won’t have to worry about black superstars showing up for games on his girlfriend’s arm.
I thought I’d skewered Sterling, not disparaged hockey. The man owns a team in a league where virtually all the biggest stars are black. If Sterling doesn’t want black superstars like Magic Johnson attending his games, then he’d better field a team in a league that has fewer big-name black athletes.
I thought that was a clever beginning. Readers thought not.
Many didn’t make it past the column’s opening lines -- which ignited the sports chatterati online and sparked outrage among fans.
They said I had vilified hockey. I didn’t see that. They said I implied that hockey is a lily-white sport whose fans and players would be comfortable with a bigot as a team owner. I don’t believe that. But I can see now how readers might have drawn that impression.
It didn’t occur to me then that what I'd written might lead some to align me with racists and bigots. After all, I've been mocking Donald Sterling for years.
I understand now why those lines struck a nerve. It felt like a gratuitous joke at the expense of the National Hockey League, which does have black players on most of its teams.
Still, I don't understand all the vitriol. Complaints from hockey fans flooded my inbox, many laced with racial slurs and insults: I’m an ignorant, ugly, racist, idiot gorilla – and worse that can’t be printed. Their rants make Sterling seem enlightened by comparison.
I’ve been reminded how difficult it is to talk about race without bumping up against the limits of language, history and perspective.
But I’ve also been heartened by the public outrage that's made Sterling a pariah -- and that helped fuel the bold move by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has banned Sterling from the league for life.
What Sterling said was too offensive to make light of or overlook. Fairness, teamwork and respect count for a lot in sports. There’s no room for a Sterling team on the field, the ice or the court.