The Clippers, Don Sterling, and the Actions of Heroes

I used to teach the 2nd grade.  As a future sociologist, and life-long lover of justice, one of my favorite units to teach was the Social Studies unit “People Who Make A Difference.” I would begin by asking my class of 7-8 year olds, “What is a hero?” They would often respond by naming their favorite comic book heroes. Superman and Spiderman were sure to come up. As we moved past comments such as “someone who wears a cape” or “someone who has powers,” eventually a student would say something along the lines of “someone who saves people.” I would express a lot of excitement at this statement that eventually led the students to name people like Martin Luther King. Jr. as their idea of a hero.  In this post, Mediha Din explores the components of being a hero and creating social change through the three major perspectives in sociology.

As I watched the first minute of the Clippers basketball game Sunday, (a play-off game versus the Golden State Warriors) I waited to see if any heroes would emerge. I listened earlier to the recorded remarks allegedly made by the Clippers franchise owner Donald Sterling, instructing his girlfriend to avoid associating with black people in public. You can listen to the recording here.

Many basketball fans awaited the response of the Clippers players and coach, wondering if they would refuse to play. The Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, made a statement earlier stating that he was not surprised by the comments. He also explained that the team met, the players were not happy about the comments, but they were not going to let anyone get in the way of what they have worked so hard for.

Just before the game began the players wore their warm-up shirts in-side out, hiding the Clippers logo. Commentators said this act was to represent their solidarity. Then the game began, basketball as usual.

I thought about Muhammad Ali. How he sacrificed his title to stand up for what he believed in. Ali declared his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War during the time of the draft. He was arrested, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license, and stripped him of his title. Some found his anti-establishment views infuriating, others found them inspiring.

New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote, “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Many of the heroes we discussed in my second grade class are also discussed in my college level sociology class- Ruby Bridges, Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafzai, and the Freedom Riders- people who risked their lives and livelihoods for justice.

So how do sociologists describe the quest for social justice? What is required for a social movement to take off? According to Structural Functionalism, people must feel a sense of relative deprivation for a social movement to occur. This refers to the idea that social movements arise when people experience an intolerable gap between their expectations and their rewards. For example, Mexican-American war veterans returned from World War II with heightened expectations of their treatment in the United States. When a war hero, Private Felix Longoria was initially not allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery due to racism and segregation, an intolerable gap developed and the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement gained fuel.

According to Conflict Theory, social movements develop when individuals who experience deprivation get the resources they need to mobilize for action. This includes having organized leaders: someone with talent (such as strong public speaking skills), knowledge (of laws in particular), money (or a way how to raise it), and an understanding of how to use technology to get your message voiced.

According to symbolic interactionism, a social movement needs political opportunities. This would include circumstances that get attention (such as the mistreatment of Rosa Parks that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott). A movement also needs an insurgent consciousness. This refers to the sense that change is needed and possible. Often times, there is a belief that change is needed, but the belief that it is possible is missing.

Perhaps an intolerable gap, resources for mobilization, and political opportunities to be heard were all available for the Clippers players, but an insurgent consciousness was missing. They may not have believed that refusing to play would have the power to send the message that racism in the NBA would not be tolerated.  Once the game began, one of the ABC/ESPN commentators spoke about the opportunity for social change.

Commentator Mike Breen asked “With all the talk about this going on, is there any impact in terms of what happens on the court?” Commentator Jeff Van Gundy responded. “Mike, who cares? There are some things that are bigger than pursuing a championship. Pursuing a championship is worthwhile. Making a stand on something that impacts society, is even more important.”

One of the things that sets apart so many heroes that have accomplished social change is the refusal to accept the status quo, the belief that they can make a difference, and the conviction that nothing else is more important.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The annul CNN Hero Award Show recognizes everyday people doing amazing things to help others in all aspects of society (education, hunger, environment, health, human rights, and more). View the video clips about the top 10 CNN Heroes from 2013. Describe the contributions of 3 heroes and why you think they are significant. You can also nominate a hero for 2014.
  2. Connect the concepts of relative deprivation, resourced leaders, political opportunities, and insurgent consciousness to any social movement you are familiar with (past or present).
  3. Read this article about Muhammad Ali. What would you have done if you were a Clippers basketball player? Explain your reasoning.
  4. View this Ted Talk on Social Change. What are 3 ideas for social change made by the speaker that you agree or disagree with? Why?