“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?”
By now, everyone knows who said this. This is one of the rare news stories when there are no sides. Sure, there’s plenty more to learn about how this Donald Sterling tape came to be made, and how it came into the hands of TMZ, etc etc. But those are mere curiosities. We all have eyes and ears, and we all know what’s going on inside Sterling’s head. The NBA has come down on the L.A. Clippers owner about as hard as it can. Good. Now, who’s next?
The Sterling saga has been correctly portrayed as a story of deep racism. Maybe this incident will serve as another step on a long climb to a post-racial America. To some degree, he sounds like an old pathetic fool on that tape, gasping for a final few breaths to make racist comments while someone who might as well be his nurse placates him with juice. That’s the image I’d like to hold for the last powerful, but fragile, strains of hard-core racism left in our society. I wish that were true. I fear it’s not.
Why? In part because I think for all the racism you feel in Sterling’s comments, I think you feel a lot of other things, too.
I think you feel Karl Marx laughing in his grave.
On that tape, Sterling has given an ode to ownership. And he’s drawn a bright line between owners and workers. Players don’t earn their cars, their food, or their clothes with decades of hard work. Sterling gives those things to them. In fact, he “makes” their profession. He doesn’t just own the team. He owns the workers, too. Heck, he owns the whole profession.
Have you ever felt like that? I’ll bet you have.
Have you ever had a manager treat you like an object, there merely to serve his or her will? Have you ever felt like your company sees you as no more than an entry on a spreadsheet? Have you ever bumped into an executive at a company party and felt like that person looked right through you, as if you weren’t even there? Worse yet, have you ever heard an executive talk about another employee saying something like Sterling said, something like this: “That guy is lucky we let him work here.”
In a society where executives earn 200 times an average worker annually, it’s easy to see how that could happen. (In fact, at the top 100 companies in America, the disparity is 500x). This gap has exploded in the span of a single generation, at a time when real wages have remained essentially flat.
Too many American laws favor owners, who eagerly move their profits overseas to avoid taxes. Executives often pay lower tax rates than most middle-class wage earners, in part because their stock compensation isn’t considered income. In fact, large companies are often paid with homeowners’ property taxes — cities buy buildings for them, donate sales tax collections to them. I once worked at a company and bought lunch in the cafeteria every day, paying standard sales tax, and later learned the sales tax for my lunches was going right back to my company as a subsidy.
It’s no wonder owners they feel like they own their workers. Hey, they were “giving” me lunch after all.
This is about more than subsidies or executive pay gaps, admittedly complex topics. It’s about attitude. And honor. Plenty of companies and executives treat their people well, and with dignity. I’d hope, most do, though I don’t have a good metric for that. But I have talked to probably thousands of executives in my lifetime, and I am here to tell you that class warfare is alive and well. It has different, more politically correct names today, like CEO pay disparity or Big Data or personal improvement programs. But I’ve been in plenty of rooms where the (often old white male) executives tell jokes about their lazy workers, how they will squeeze more work out of them, how they will motivate them to work weekends by threatening to fire them, or humiliating them. Entire graduate school management programs and expensive seminars are devoted to sinister ways to control workers, to dangle tiny bonuses in front of them so they’ll volunteer for evening work and fight with each other. Heck, Microsoft only recently abandoned a structure that meant any employee who got a bonus was taking bonus dollars away from co-workers.
Classic divide and conquer. No one notices the fight between owners and workers when the workers are fighting each other.
I don’t mean, in any way, to take focus off the racism of Sterling’s comments. But I am worried that, if he’s really gone, and ESPN moves on to its next blanket coverage crisis, that we’ll all stop thinking about what Sterling really said. This should be the beginning, not the end.
Because how many American executives do you think, if caught in a moment of secret candor, would talk about their employees that way? Close your eyes and picture it:
“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”