I got Pat Sajak in trouble once. Yes, that Pat Sajak. The third-largest American icon on Wheel of Fortune, after Vanna and the wheel.
Sajak, who doesn't take himself very seriously, mentioned during our TV interview that, a few decades ago, he would tape his iconic game-of-hangman show after a few margaritas. This revelation got a bunch of YouTube hits and made clanging-sounds news on all those Infotainment Celebrity shows — Drunk At The Wheel! — and I was mortified on his behalf that something so ridiculous could mushroom-cloud into something that felt serious and scandalous.
I also didn’t understand it, given that he had said the same thing several times before on my radio show, and several years before, and in several other places. This reaction seemed random. Like his wheel just landing on an arbitrary scandal because we needed one, no matter how old or frivolous. But as I worried about him getting in trouble with scared bosses, he laughed and said, “In a few days, this will blow over when some grandmother catches a cat’s tail under a rocking chair, and the cat lands on her head, and I’ll be replaced in the news cycle.”
Am I really going to compare a silly game-show host controversy to the very, very serious Donald Sterling racism story? Yes. Yes, I am. Because they’re both different kinds of the same stupid, speaking to our need to feel good clucking about something, anything, from the moral high ground from which we can shout, “Gotcha!” to those down below, no matter how silly their games, no matter how empty their crimes.
Important and not-important people around the NBA knew Sterling was a racist long before this recording, so it wasn’t the racism that got him gone, evidently, as much as it was the recording that put it out before all of us in the light. And it wasn’t the recording that put it out before all of us in the light that got him gone, evidently, as much as it was the Kardashian-y way we choose to consume these things in 2014. The very idea that this is the bigotry that got Sterling banned minimizes all his more damaging and meaningful bigotry we tolerated and ignored and that should be more offensive to black people, and all of us, than anything a crazy, old coot articulated incoherently at the very end of his decades-long racist run.
But we live in a noisy time, man. It is so noisy, yelling about nonsense, puffing up controversies, that the noise lures the angry mob quicker and louder than ever, Twitter and Facebook acting like a lit fuse. It happens with such swiftness and ferocity and so little discerning that, next thing you know, a racist billionaire owner is being forced into losing his NBA team over a private recording made by a mistress a half-century his junior.
Please read the facts in the last half of that funny sentence again. The idea that “racist” is what jumps out of it and echoes is kind of amazing, all things considered. “Racist” might actually be the least surprising thing in that sentence, given what has been known and public about the man, but the way we reacted to this racism reveals almost as much about us and our times as it does about Sterling.
This is not an apology for Sterling. Let’s make that very clear. He’s equal parts idiot and bozo, and he deserves every ounce of his echoing, sea-to-shining-sea shame. He’s a very easy race piñata, and it is great fun for us in the media to hit that piñata again and again while consuming all the sugary candy that passes for newstrients these days. It is also easier to cluck in consensus about this overt racism than, say, the largest housing discrimination settlement ever, which also happens to be on Sterling’s résumé but we largely ignored because it wasn’t as splashy as this. Last week’s controversy as a news story? Chewable. Housing discrimination as a news story? Eschewable.
I’m more interested, now that some of the noise has diluted and this volcano lava is merely gurgling, in examining how the hell we got to a place so loud and disorienting that a bunch of rich, powerful men just took the unprecedented punitive action of setting the precedent that allows them all to lose their teams over pillow talk taped in private. That’s fairly amazing, and seems to speak to the strength of the loud and angry mob in matters of public relations. But understand something:
This only could have happened to Sterling. I don’t mean he’s the only racist. I don’t even mean he’s the only one who’d be dumb enough to say these things out loud or have them taped. I mean that if any other NBA owner had been in the middle of exactly this same scandal, but without Sterling’s past or Sterling’s lack of support within the group, not a one of them would have lost his team over it. Not one.
Sterling’s ban was kind of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Racism. This scandal, the noisy one, the silly one, brought out into the light the lawsuit his black general manager filed and the housing-discrimination settlement and all those awful stories about Sterling heckling black players during games and taking women into the locker room to “look at those beautiful black bodies.” All the stories, in other words, that we largely ignored before this one because they didn’t have quite the same whiff of scandal with a recording, a mistress and TMZ.
If we listed Sterling’s racist résumé on paper, this scandal wouldn’t make the cut if we were trying to keep that résumé to one page. This isn’t in his Top 10 Most Racist Things. But it shot to No. 1, the first line in his obituary, because of how bite-sized and byte-sized the racism was and because of how noisily we sharpen our teeth to take those easy bytes in 2014. We just got the racist equivalent of Al Capone for tax evasion, which is fine enough as a result but doesn’t excuse that we put the “ignore” at the front of “ignorance” when it came to his racism the many years before this.
What he said in those tapes wasn’t seismic and damaging racism; what he did before having to settle his housing-discrimination lawsuit was seismic and damaging racism. So what is causing this outrage and this banning isn’t actually damaging racism but rather damaging public relations, how things look and sound being more important in 2014 than how things actually are.
In terms of public relations, there is no hypothetical, fictional controversy an NBA owner could have brought upon his league worse than this one. An old white guy — an “owner” by title, and sounding like a slave master — appearing to not like black people in a league that is almost 80 percent black? An owner could have literally murdered someone without it quite becoming the noisy, entire-league-staining PR calamity this was. No other behavior, criminal or otherwise, would have had the black players, the stars, the employees, thinking about boycotting playoff games. There’s not a lot of owner behavior that can morph noisily and quickly into a 2014 civil-rights cause.
But if another owner, any other owner, a liked and respected owner, had been guilty of this and only this? It would have been noisy and resulted in punishment, but it wouldn’t have turned into a lifetime ban or the Sterling scandal. Are you kidding? Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was already trying to articulate the slippery slope/privacy argument that owners would have used to protect another owner they actually liked just a few hours after the ban came down with a clang on the owner they hate and Cuban suddenly said he was 100 percent behind a ban precedent that can now be used on the slippery slope to punish his exposed dirty laundry, too.
This was fascinating to watch and consume as a public-relations crisis, but it would have been just as fascinating to see how owners would have dealt with this if the owner in crisis was someone they deemed worthy of protection. The guess here is that the precedent — you can lose your team over a private recording? — would have morphed into a protection of anyone but Sterling.
What the mistress did was wrong. What Sterling did was wrong. But this wasn't two wrongs making a right. This was two wrongs being used to get rid of a wrong. Many will argue that it isn't very American to lose your business over something said in private. But this is the most American thing in the world, American as capitalism, a bunch of rich guys protecting their money by kicking someone they didn’t like out of their club.
“I wish I had just paid her off,” Sterling told, of all things, DuJour magazine. The perfect quote in the perfect place at the perfect time. DuJour. Of the day. The scandal du jour, shallow and flashy and loud. Spin that scandalous wheel, Pat Sajak, on this, the most popular kind of game show we play in 2014. We’ll all watch and wait to become the angry audience mob while praying that it is never, ever our turn to spin.