A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a course on diversity and inclusion that also provided for a cultural history of the different races of people who now live in these United States. The class engaged the students in a variety of teaching methods including lecture, videos, hands-on activities and group exercises. We broke into teams at the end of the first day. Our task was to go to dinner and complete a group activity. There were four teams. Each team was given the same problem statement, and challenged to formulate a solution.
As I remember the problem, a waitress is serving a table of eight. She takes the orders and heads back to the kitchen. One member of the group says, “She never asked me what I wanted to order.” Three other persons in the party said they also noticed that the waitress seemed to skip her when she was taking the orders for the table. The hook for this problem is the person that did not order is the only person of color at this table. The individual whose meal was forgotten is now feeling singled out, and is wondering why this only happened to her?
For the group discussion, each team was asked to determine if the waitress is a racist? or has something against this person or those who look like her? Tell why we think this happened? And state how we would resolve the issue.
One suggestion was to confront the waitress and ask her if she is a racist? Another team suggested not going there, but bring to the waitress’ attention that a member of the table had not been served and that she was very upset and offended by the poor service. Another team suggested that all of the members of the table get up and leave because the service was poor.
My team deduced from the limited information given that it was difficult to know if the waitress harbored any racist views or feelings towards this individual based on the limited information given. As far as we know, it appears to be an honest mistake. Perhaps she was more busy than usual that day, or was having some challenges either at work or home. However, the waitress needs to know that several persons at this table have been offended by her action, and someone needs to make this situation right.
We went on to discuss several different options for how the waitress or restaurant could make things right with all parties. An apology to the offended party(ies) was the first order of business. If the customer was still interested in placing an order, that was the second order of business. A good faith offer of a free drink, appetizer, dessert, or the entire meal for the offended party could set the course to make this situation right.
Shifting from a hypothetical to a real-life situation, let’s review the current discussions within the National Basketball Association (NBA), and what is seen by some as a likely precedent setting move by the new NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. On Tuesday, April 29, 2014, Silver slapped Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, with a lifetime ban from involvement in the NBA that includes publicly attending any of the league’s games or events. He also fined Sterling the maximum amount of $2.5 million for his behavior, and said that he would do everything he could to force him to sell his team.
This was a swift response to tape recordings of Sterling telling his now ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he disapproved of her posting pictures of herself with black people online. Sterling goes on a racist rant that clearly documents his views of blacks.
I applaud Commissioner Silver for not looking the other way. After all, he has only been on the job three months. I also applaud him for not allowing this issue with a team owner to fester. A number of critics have complained that this is not the first time Sterling has been accused of racism, or has been linked to using language like this. CarMax, VirginAmerica, State Farm, and Red Bull stated that they were pulling their sponsorships, and it was expected that others would do the same. Sponsorships for the entire league could have been impacted if the situation with Sterling had not been checked.
Players, other employees, and fans were very unhappy with the recent events that unraveled with Sterling. Adding to that, a 2013 Nielsen study showed that basketball fans are disproportionately black. [Ref 1] A remark like that coming from a team owner is not going to sit well with most fans, and certainly not African-Americans. The study showed that about 45% of professional basketball television audiences are black.
Here is what the Nielsen report does not say. The NBA is one of the world’s most successful sports franchises. While the television audience may be 45% black in the U.S., with a worldwide following, fans of every color are watching as this incident continues to unfold. Sterling’s remarks are not sitting well with them either.
Recalling a trip to China in October 2005, the group I was traveling with was often asked about one or more of the NBA teams or specific players by the locals in the cities that we visited. As I was standing in line to check my luggage for the return flight from Beijing to San Francisco, the ticket agent appeared to be taking a much longer time reviewing my paperwork. He finally said to me, “Do you live in Phoenix, AZ?” Yes, I said. His next question: “How are the Phoenix Suns doing? They are one of my favorite basketball teams!” Really, I said! They haven’t played very well the past few years.
Remember, that was just one comment from an NBA basketball fan in all of China!
Here’s my rant: Not too far from the world of sports is that of other businesses, academia, government, public agencies, the military, etc. Comments that are similar or worse to what Don Sterling said on those tapes occur every day. And too often, too many of those in managerial and leadership posts look the other way, pretend that they did not hear what was said, say they are going to look into it with no real intention of doing so, or consider the issue an isolated incident. Some attempt to find issues with the victim or offended party rather than address the problem employee due to established friendships or other ties, or they just lack the courage to say or do anything meaningful.
Those who work in and have been given the task of leading these institutions can take a few notes from the NBA’s play book.
The final chapter for Don Sterling and the NBA has yet to be written as owners of the other teams debate if the league should force him to sell the Clippers. To date, a few potential buyers have been mentioned.
Again, thank you Commissioner Silver for your efforts to make this situation right.
1. Banning Sterling Good for the NBA’s Bottom Line, Richard Allen Greene, CNN, May 1, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/30/sport/sterling-clippers-ban-business/index.html?section=money_news_international, last accessed on 05.01.2014.