The NBA's decision to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fine him $2.5 million for his racist comments is big news.
But the story behind the story is that Sterling, who had a long record of discriminatory conduct, donated money to the Los Angeles NAACP and was even honored by the organization with awards on two separate occasions.
In May, the Clippers owner and real estate billionaire was set to receive a lifetime achievement award — his second from the civil rights organization. But then things unraveled right before his eyes.
What gives here? Or in this case, who gives, and what do they get for it? Welcome to a dirty little secret of civil rights organizations and other nonprofits that promote diversity: Often, some of these groups leverage awards as donation bait. And we need to take a closer look at this thorny issue.
Donald Sterling deserves special recognition for a lifetime of racist conduct. After all, he settled a $2.765 million federal lawsuit in which he allegedly refused to rent to African-Americans and Latinos in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles.
Plus there was the discrimination suit that NBA legend Elgin Baylor filed against Sterling after being ousted as general manager.
Apparently, the local NAACP chapter told Sterling he needed to make things right. So he invited children of color to basketball games and sent them to summer camp.
Between 2008 and 2010, according to tax records uncovered by the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Clippers Foundation and the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation bestowed at least $45,000 in grants upon the Los Angeles NAACP. Sterling had at least a 15-year relationship with the chapter. The national NAACP urged the L.A. chapter to rescind the honor to a man who reportedly said "black tenants smell and attract vermin," but to no avail.
Nevertheless, the L.A. branch believes there is room for forgiveness from Donald Sterling, and room to forgive his money as well.
The problem is by no means limited to this particular case.
For example, take the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), a nonprofit dedicated to equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecommunications and broadband industries, according to its website. MMTC, which helps civil rights groups on FCC matters, opposed media industry consolidation and the relaxing of rules regarding media ownership on the grounds that this position benefited minorities. However, after accepting over $440,000 in media sponsorships from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Clear Channel Communications Inc., and other corporations who sought changes in the rules, the MMTC reversed its position.
In addition, in 2010, MMTC awarded Trinity Broadcasting Network and Clear Channel with its "Extraordinary Service Award" for those "who have far exceeded the call of duty in the service of the civil rights cause." That year, TBN had donated 147 low-power television stations to MMTC.
Further, Sterling is not the first dubious person to manipulate philanthropy to attempt to buy a new image. For example, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, started a foundation to benefit Native Americans when he was pressured to change the racially offensive name of his football team. The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation is nothing more than a gimmick to help you forget that the Redskins moniker is offensive to Native Americans.
Corporate giving is crucial and beneficial in many ways. Simply put, nonprofits, including civil rights groups, are competing and scrambling to chase the money. They need the funding to survive.
Meanwhile, people like Sterling are looking for a tax break or an opportunity to clean up their public relations image. In any case, it is an investment. Often, those funding sources come with strings attached for the charity receiving them. That cash has the potential to change a civil rights organization in a bad way and compromise its mission when the money is sketchy and the donors are in conflict with the group's mission.
When black basketball players banded together this week and threatened to shut down the entire NBA operation, they rediscovered their backbone. And they made a civil rights statement not seen by black athletes since the black power salute of the 1968 Summer Olympics or the Muhammad Ali Summit in Cleveland in 1967.
The question is whether the process of "money laundering" is worth it — or whether the nefarious origins of the money are overcome by the noble causes the money will support.
Racial justice organizations must decide if their integrity has a price tag and if risking their reputation and legacy is worth the check. It all depends on your tolerance level and your capacity to compromise your core values.
Would Dr. King or Malcolm X have honored a racist at a chicken dinner? Could you picture SNCC or the Black Panthers doing this sort of thing back in the day? I doubt it.
(Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove.)