Sep 26, 2014 7:14 PM
Column: NBA still must deal with the race issue
The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) While the NFL was rightfully being hammered over turning a blind eye to domestic violence, the NBA got a bit of a pass on its latest brouhaha.
Training camps are starting up around the NBA, so it's time to ask a blunt question: Does the league celebrated for its diversity and inclusiveness actually have a race problem?
Any thought that Donald Sterling was just an isolated case of bigotry was quickly erased by a nasty situation in Atlanta, where racially charged comments made by both a co-owner and the general manager have left the Hawks mired in turmoil.
On Friday, team officials met with civil rights leaders at Philips Arena, while Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was in New York to huddle with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver over the future of the Hawks.
Silver, who acted so decisively in running Sterling out of the league after the Los Angeles Clippers vile owner was recorded telling his girlfriend he didn't want blacks at his games, faces a more complex predicament when it comes to the Hawks.
This could be an even bigger test for the rookie commissioner, who has faced some mighty big challenges since taking over for David Stern in February.
There's no easy escape plan for the Atlanta problem, no Steve Ballmer waiting in the wings to pay whatever it takes to purchase the franchise of a disgraced owner. In this case, Bruce Levenson, who agreed to sell his share of the Hawks after the revelation of a 2-year-old email in which he complained about the fan base having too many African-Americans and not enough whites.
Also, what to do with general manager Danny Ferry? He remains on a leave of absence after casually tossing around horrific racial stereotypes while discussing the pros and cons of signing free agent Luol Deng.
The NBA caught a break in this whole mess, the headlines dominated in recent weeks by Ray Rice and the NFL's domestic abuse scandal. But the Hawks case should be at least as alarming to the NBA as Sterling's racist blathering in a private setting, caught by a scheming girlfriend and her recorder.
Levenson put his feelings in writing and sent them to Ferry and the other team owners (none of whom, it must be noted, were offended enough to do anything about it in 2012). Ferry was on a recorded conference call with the ownership group when, as the story goes, he read from a scouting report that said Deng has "some African in him" and went on with some nonsense comparing him to a store that looks legitimate out front but sells counterfeit goods in the back.
"It is troubling that it could happen in the workplace," said Richard Lapchick, founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. "I think teams really need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for anything that would smack of racism or sexism or homophobia."
Going by the example he set in the Sterling case, Silver would have already made it clear that someone like Ferry has no place in the NBA, or at least deserve some serious time on the sidelines.
Instead, it looks like the wheels are in motion for Ferry to return at some point this season.
Early on, Silver said he didn't think the GM deserved to lose his job. This week, Hall of Famer Magic Johnson met privately with Ferry and changed his previous stance that a firing was in order. Even Deng, who signed with the Miami Heat, said Friday that he has forgiven Ferry and doesn't think he's a racist.
But before we all give him a pass, the commissioner needs to address some very real issues, such as:
When the Hawks and the NBA announced that Levenson was selling his share of the team, why didn't they bother to say the whole thing came to light because of an internal investigation into Ferry's comments this past summer?
If Ferry was merely repeating someone else's assessment of Deng, who wrote the offensive scouting report?
Why would Ferry feel comfortable enough to repeat those comments in such an official setting, even if they weren't his own?
Does it even matter if Ferry was reading someone else's words? Aren't all stereotypes passed along in one way or another? Would Sterling have deserved a break if he had claimed he was merely repeating views he heard as a child?
Lapchick, whose annual reports on racial and gender equality have always given the NBA the highest marks of any professional league, said he's confident Silver will do the right thing.
"If this happened in any other league, I would be more concerned," Lapchick said Friday in a telephone interview. "But because it's the NBA, with its record across the board in hiring practices and progressive policies and getting teams working in the communities ... all that is a counterweight."
But Silver must act, thoroughly and completely, before clearing the way for Ferry's return or, if called for, firmly instruct the Hawks to go in a different direction.
Even more than giving Sterling the heave-ho, that might be the best way for Silver to really prove racism has no place in his game.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963