Casual Racism in Sport: The cases of Donald Sterling and Eddie McGuire

Sport provides an avenue to examine a society’s character and what it values. As such, sport can also serve as a point of comparison between societies. In recent weeks Australian Rules football has served as a path into racism in Australia. In America, basketball has also been embroiled in disputes over racism. The cases Donald Sterling (US) and Eddie McGuire (Australia) illuminates stark differences in social norms and tolerance of racism. Comparing two incidences of senior figures making racist remarks is revealing of the different levels of tolerance towards racists or racial comments in each society.

Here are the facts:

Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers

The Incident (From Wikipedia):

On April 25, 2014, TMZ Sports released a recording of a conversation between Sterling and a female friend, V. Stiviano (born María Vanessa Perez, also known as Monica Gallegos, Vanessa Perez, and Maria Valdez).[43][44][45] In the recording from September 2013, a man confirmed to be Sterling was irritated over a photo Stiviano had posted on Instagram, in which she posed with Basketball Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson.[44][46] Sterling told Stiviano: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people”, and, “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want”, but “the little I ask you is … not to bring them to my games”.[47][48][49]

The Response From Wikipedia:

On April 29, 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Sterling had been banned from the league for life and fined $2.5 million, the maximum fine allowed by the NBA constitution.[44][65] Silver stripped Sterling of virtually all of his authority over the Clippers, and banned him from entering any Clippers facility. He was also banned from attending any NBA games.[44][66] The punishment was one of the most severe ever imposed on a professional sports owner.[46] Moreover, Silver stated that he would move to force Sterling to sell the team, based on a willful violation of the rules, which would require the consent of three-quarters, or 22, of the other 29 NBA team owners.[67] Sterling’s wife, Shelly, has co-owned the team with him since 1981, and she has served as one of the team’s two alternate governors.[68] While she was not included in the NBA’s ban on Sterling,[69] the league stated that “if a controlling owner’s interest is terminated by a 34 vote, all other team owners’ interests are automatically terminated as well”.[70]

Eddie McGuire, President of the Collingwood Football Club

The Incident Talking on Triple M radio, five days after Adam Goodes was called an ‘ape’ by a Collingwood fan, Eddie McGuire said:

Darcy: What a great promo that is for King Kong.

McGuire: Get Adam Goodes down for it do you reckon?

Darcy: No I wouldn’t have thought so, absolutely not.

McGuire: You can see them doing that can’t you?

Darcy: Who?

McGuire: Goodsey.

Darcy: What’s that?

McGuire: You know with the ape thing, the whole thing, I’m just saying the pumping him up and mucking around and all that sort of stuff.

The Response (From Wikipedia):

He apologised on air after making the reference,[27][28] but prefaced his apology by stating “I wasn’t racially vilifying anyone”.[29] McGuire’s comment was widely criticised.[30] He also held a press conference in which he apologised again. In a later interview that day, he admitted he was guilty of racial vilification.[31] He also offered his resignation as Collingwood President, but the Collingwood board expressed their support for him.[32] In June 2015 McGuire was labelled a ‘continual boofhead’ by the Upper House of the Parliament of New South Wales for comments he made about an Indigenous dance performed by Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes.[33]

So what does it reveal?

Many things are revealed in each of these incidences. The striking feature to me, however, is the casual nature of Australian racism and the casual nature of our response to it. The Upper House of NSW Parliament probably thought they were acting quite nobly in labelling McGuire a “boofhead”. Perhaps some even thought it was a small part of that arc of history bending towards justice that MLK spoke of. In reality, however, it is the mirror image of the casual nature of racism in Australia.

Casual offense, casual condemnation.

In the US, Donald Sterling owned the Clippers. Property ownership is one of the most sacred unions in Western societies, yet the NBA forced Sterling to sell his property! He has been banned from attending games! He was fined $2.5 million! And what happened to Eddie McGuire? Nothing.

Sure, some may quibble that Stirling’s comments were worse. Perhaps. But even so, what was McGuire’s punishment?

The so-called ‘continual boofhead’ is able to continue being the President of Collingwood, continue appearing on Triple M radio, continue appearing on Channel Nine, and continue to opine about what is and is not racist in contemporary Australia!

Why was Sterling’s punishment so forthright and clear in comparison to McGuire’s? I don’t think it is reducible to the NBA executive having more power or greater moral consciousness than the AFL executive. Rather the NBA players and fans, as well as the American public would not tolerate Sterling’s comments (there are blindspots).

In Australia, however, there has not been a significant demand from players, fans or the wider public that the comments of Eddie McGuire require a serious or considered response. Australia needs to face up to its widespread casual and not so casual racism. Part of this needs to come through a not-so-casual response to racist and racial acts.

Bioethics, a humble servant to the queen?

Image taken from page 25 of 'The Men in the Moon: or, the 'Devil to pay.' With thirteen cuts [by George Cruikshank], etc. [A satirical poem-chiefly in reference to the proceedings of Messrs Cobbett, Hunt, and others.]'

The role of bioethics has been questioned in an op-ed by the silver-maned experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s piece has generated some heated online responses. While some commentators call for context and nuance in reading Pinker’s piece, others read it in the context of the turf wars over the role of science and the humanities in the modern production of knowledge. Pinker has held a lead role with #TeamScience in these disputes. Until recently, bioethics has been able to negotiate these wars by trying to get along with everyone. However, Pinker’s recent call for bioethics to “Get out of the way” and allow medical science to do its life-saving thing has publicly questioned whether bioethics is helping or hindering medical science.

A questionable lineage

In the not so distant past, theology and philosophy both laid claim to the title “queen of the sciences” – a claim that not many today would grant either. In terms of institutional and financial support, both are in the descent (see, see). This is not to say that we should smooth the pillow and send them off into the quiet night. Both will continue their important work, but many of the hangers-on will continue to retreat to other parties. Vice-Chancellors and politicians won’t be launching books or holding soirees to celebrate a new breakthrough in Hegelian scholarship, for instance.

While the social and economic capital of theology and philosophy declines, their child, Bioethics, is perhaps in a more opportunistic optimistic position. Since the 1970s bioethics has found a role in service of the new queen – medicine. Medicine fulfills the role once held by theology and philosophy in ordering the human sciences.* The importance of medicine and medical research in the modern university is unquestioned. In the same way theology was once essential to Oxford University; medical research has become essential for a major research institution to be taken seriously. Its role is more than this however. Medicine is not only greatly valued, but determines the value of other human sciences. The closer a discipline’s proximity to medicine and the goal of securing human health and preventing curing disease (see), then the greater the value of that discipline.

Bioethics has been placed, or placed itself, within and alongside medical research.

In the 1970s, philosophers and theologians offered initial responses to public scandals in research and clinical practice. For example, Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the US, the experiments on women with cervical cancer at New Zealand’s National Women’s Hospital, or the death of Jesse Gelsinger; who died while participating in a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania. Events such as these led to acceptance that ethical oversight of medical research and practice is essential. Ethics committees were established, and ethics education became standard for medical students and researchers. The success of these interventions has led Pinker to conclude that medical researchers have learned to behave and appropriate checks are now in place. Therefore the shackles of bioethics can be loosened.

Keeping medical research “in check” is only part of the story.

A role also opened up for bioethics centres and bioethicists to calmly communicate breakthrough medical research to anxious publics. In Australia, Monash University established the Monash Centre of Human Bioethics in 1980 with Peter Singer as Director. The initial role of the centre was to promote the rapidly advancing research in artificial reproductive technologies at Monash University. Alan Trounson, the former director of the Monash Centre for Early Human Development, recalls:

I had to sort myself out in the early days just like anyone who works in a new area involving something like human embryos. If we hadn’t had Peter Singer around in those days I think we might not have pursued some things to the extent that we have.

Singer, among others, helped further the research of Trouson and his colleagues by communicating to the public that the moral status of an embryo is not something to be concerned about and that so called “test-tube” babies are just fine.

Pinker believes that it is time for bioethics to “get out of the way”. However, rather than saying “stop”, a lot bioethicists have arguably greased the wheels of medical science and widened societal ethical boundaries to allow more and more research to be done. So perhaps in this case, what Pinker meant to say was not “get out of the way”, but “get in your place! Tell the public that editing genomes is not to be worried about because biomedical research is progressing and soon disease will be regressing”.

*This is not to suggest a neat linear progression from theology to philosophy to medicine. The effects of theology, for instances, are still very present in philosophy and medicine (and bioethics).