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Why the NBA’s handling of Donald Sterling affair is a lesson in anti-racism for FIFA

The NBA’s swift and heavy punishment of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling puts the habitually weak response of football’s governing body to shame over the issue of racial discrimination.

10 minutes was all it took for Donald Sterling’s NBA career to crash and burn. After being recorded chastising his girlfriend for associating with black people, the 80-year-old owner has been banned from the sport for life and fined $2.5 million, all of which will be donated to organisations that combat racism.

The response was as dramatic as it was timely. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner who has been in his post for only three months, was brutally clear as to why such drastic action was meted out. “The views expressed by Mr Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” he said. “I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations.”

Despite protests from voices arguing about the invasion of Sterling’s private conversation, the league’s actions have generally been seen as watershed moment for the NBA which has united the league, 70% of whose players are black but whose team owners are overwhelmingly white. A statement released by the Clippers said that the team “welcomed and embraced” the decision.

Sterling, by the way, is a deeply unpleasant individual and not just because of this week’s revelations. In 2006 he was sued by the US Department of Justice for housing discrimination who alleged that he did not like to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building,” and that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” Sterling settled for just under $3 million, and the judge noted his “unacceptable” and “outrageous conduct” during the litigation process. 

As was intended in this case, the NBA made an unequivocal ruling that racism would not be tolerated. No pandering to ‘circumstances’, no request for an apology or donation to to a just cause, no questions over a sting or set up nor any patience for Sterling’s laughable defence that the recording “does not reflect his personal views”. The message was clear. Get out of our league, get out of our sport. You are not welcome here.

How refreshing then in a week when Barcelona’s Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by a Villareal fan whilst taking a corner. Alves ridiculed the situation by taking a bite out of it and carrying on and Villareal promptly identified the supporter and banned him for life. But it was difficult not to feel that the decisive action taken by the NBA will not any time soon be replicated by a similar body that governed football in Europe. FIFA president Sepp Blatter may have chimed into the Alves incident, calling an “outrage” on Twitter but FIFA’s record on combating racism is weak, to put it mildly.

FIFA’s response to Russia’s record on racism in the lead up to the 2018 World Cup, for instance, has been lenient, to put it mildly. From David Hills’ ‘Said and Done’ column in the Observer on 10 September 2010:

  Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko says “disrespectful” English press have overplayed a one-off racist banner at Lokomotiv Moscow in an attempt to hurt Russia’s bid. “Their focus is excessive”.
• Other one-offs since 2007: 20 Russia fans wear Ku Klux Klan hoods at a game against Poland; Spartak fans greet their new black signing with a “Monkey go home” banner; Fans take a “Happy Holocaust” flag to a game against Jewish club Maccabi Moscow; Zenit fans lynch a toy black monkey; Zenit coach Dick Advocaat says: “I’d sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players”; Andre Bikey reveals he carried a gun during his time with Lokomotiv: “It is very hard to be black there”; And anti-football racism campaigner Ilya Dzhaparidze is stabbed to death – one of 71 neo-Nazi murders in 2009. (Fifa‘s view: racism is “not an operational matter” so is “not a factor” in assessing 2018 bids.)

Since then there has been the uproar that greeted Blatter’s denial that there was any racism on today’s pitches during an interview in 2011. Though he later insisted his comments were misunderstood and he did indeed think racism remained an issue, he also said that racism on the pitch could be settled with a handshake. This raised the ire of everyone from then Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, to Rio Ferdinand. As for the impending World Cup in Russia, Human Right Watch reported this January a rise during 2013 of anti-migrant violence that was accompanied by an increase in anti-migrant rhetoric, saying “racist anti-migrant rhetoric by government officials seems to be something that is condoned.”

Whilst it would be naive not to understand that the cultural and historical and demographic differences between football in Europe and professional basketball in the US, it doesn’t mean we can’t admire the stance taken by the NBA and hope that such forward-thinking might be employed in the future, even it would be after Blatter’s reign comes to an end. The issue of racism in football is the NBA on a grand scale, with vastly complicated cultural issues to tackle. It won’t be achieved easily. Despite the work of anti-racism groups in football, the official stance remains rooted in the stone age. The NBA’s brave stance offers an glimpse of the kind of decisive confidence that hopefully will be seen in the near future.

So what is Sepp Blatter’s response to the Sterling affair, bearing in mind Russia is now preparing to host the World Cup?

It seems a handshake won’t be enough to settle this one.