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Beyond Human Capital: Donald Sterling, Race, and Sports Ownership

 Los Angeles Clippers)

Within hours after the NBA announced sanctions against Donald Sterling, a list of potential Clippers buyers emerged.  Among them were noted People of Color such as Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs, and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.  While it’s too soon to safely assume that Sterling will lose his ownership, it’s not too soon to hope for a systemic change in the ownership culture of major American sports.  And the best way to affect that kind of significant shift is to have People of Color not only provide the human capital, but also the financial capital through ownership.

Human capital, in the three major American sports (NBA, NFL and MLB), is largely provided by Players of Color.  African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Latinos, and Afro-Latinos make up a large population of professional athletes. The disparity of white players to players of color in the NFL and the NBA is generally not given a second look.  After all, the talent pool for professional sports is based on need, availability and merit.  But what are the criteria for ownership?  Money?  Access?  The correct skin color?  Or perhaps it’s the money that gets you access, but only if you’re the right color.  A look at the numbers gives us a peek into this possible correlation. 

In the case of the NBA for the 2013 year, 81 percent of players were non-white, according to the sports statistics website, fivethirtyeight.com.  Despite this overwhelming number, there was only one Black principal owner – Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats.  (Interestingly, Jordan’s ownership group also has the NBA’s only Asian American general manager, Rich Cho.)   The numbers for the NFL and MLB are, not surprisingly, similar.  In baseball, there is only one minority owner – Arte Moreno, a Mexican-American, despite a 39 percent non-white player population in the league.  Non-white NFL players made up 70 percent of the league, but the NFL has only one non-white owner, Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American. 

It’s not enough to have the necessary wealth to own a sports team in the U.S.  The franchise system is designed so that all potential buyers must be approved by the other team owners.  This old boy’s network is effective in denying ownership to anyone who doesn’t meet whatever standards the owners have established. So while Sterling’s punishment may seem fair (lifetime ban from the league, a $2.5 million fine, and possibly a forced sale of the team), the terms allow the NBA to nimbly avoid another important conversation – that of legitimately engaging with People of Color as potential buyers. 

Ownership doesn’t simply come with courtside seats.  Ownership buys access to a system that has been severely manipulated to perpetuate financially driven racial segregation.   The current sports franchise structure welcomes the use (and, specifically in the case of the NFL, the abuse) of People of Color as human capital.  Financial capital through ownership can be a gateway to give People of Color the opportunity to systemically correct a wrong through a top-down system.  If the NBA is serious about change, then it should be serious about People of Color ownership opportunities. 

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