Donald Sterling, Michael Sam, and the Evolution of Society

michael_samI was nine years old the first time I ever realized how truly moronic people could be. The epiphany struck at recess on a sunny spring morning when one of my classmates approached and proceeded to make fun of me for being Asian.

I’d known this girl for a few years and was well aware that she was a devastating combination of annoying, unattractive, and dumb. I didn’t quite have a singular term for what I wanted to call her back then, but in retrospect the word “bitch” would have probably sufficed. So as I stood there watching this bitch use her hands to pull back her eyes and elicit “ching-chang-chong” sounds, I contemplated the utter stupidity of this occurrence to which I was paying witness.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I felt hurt by any of this. I was a little confused, perhaps, and slightly irritated that my mad dash to the basketball court had been interrupted. But I wasn’t hurt.

Had this girl mocked me for my year-long commitment to wearing shorts, rather than long pants, I might have been hurt. Had she lambasted my haircut, a high-top fade that somehow managed to perch intact atop the head of a half-Japanese kid, I might have been hurt. Had she poked fun at the canvas Chuck Taylors my parents made me wear, I might have been hurt, too. But for that which I had no control over, my ethnicity, I was unfazed.

No, the bewilderment of that moment materialized because this girl, this poor, idiotic girl, was also Asian. And unlike me, she was 100-percent Asian. Adopted by white people, no less, and likely convinced that she, too, was Caucasian. I can only imagine the look on her face many years later when her adoptive parents finally let her in on the secret I already knew. Instead, I stared for the time being at a clueless, hapless imbecile.

From that day forward, my awareness of the people around me only broadened. As I grew up, I began to understand that adults didn’t know everything and that the world was filled with millions, if not billions, of intellectually underwhelming minds. To that end, my only question was “Why?” Why wasn’t intelligence as pervasive as I had naively believed it to be? Why didn’t everybody know their times tables or how to properly utilize contractions in a sentence? This was literally elementary, stuff we had all learned in third or fourth grade. And yet we were ignorant to it all.

Some twenty years after the incident on the playground, a guy named Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, decided to relay his uninspired sentiments on minorities to a mistress of his, a conniving woman who recorded the conversation and unleashed it unto the entire world. Once the masses feasted their ears upon the audio of Sterling’s bigotry, seemingly everybody had an opinion on the matter.

We all know how the rest of the story plays out. Within days of learning of the racist comments, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned the 80-year-old Sterling from the league for life, extending one of the harshest punishments in professional sports history in the process. And Sterling, for his part, remained silent. For two weeks, at least. Then on Monday, he opened his mouth again.

Appearing in a taped interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Sterling attempted to set the record straight on his perceived prejudices. Having shot himself in the foot once already, this was no time for the ex-NBA owner to stumble on the road to redemption. Instead of shooting himself in the foot again, however, Sterling managed to effectively stick a live grenade in his shoe and watch it blow up in spectacular fashion.

Rather than simply apologize, Sterling opted to divert our attention from his ignorant remarks about ethnic minorities to equally unenlightened statements on basketball great Magic Johnson and the HIV virus – or as Sterling referred to it, “the AIDS.” In doing all of this and more, Sterling confirmed what we had already been led to believe: that this aging, senile old fuck really was a bigot. And as the world reacts today to the reactions of Sterling, himself, we’re learning important lessons about the society in which we dwell.

Those learnings are best juxtaposed against another sports-related occurrence that took place in recent days, one involving a high-profile football player better known for his personal life than his on-field ability.

Defensive end Michael Sam, the reigning Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and the sport’s first active, openly gay athlete, became the 249th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams, earning a selection in the seventh and final round of the event. While the pick itself served as a landmark moment in professional athletics, the reaction of Sam and subsequent reaction-to-the-reaction by the public sphere taught us something about the state of society, not unlike what we came to know in the wake of Sterling’s imprudent ramblings.

With cameras capturing the raw emotion of what was surely one of the happiest days of his life, Michael Sam, similar to many of his fellow draftees, broke down in tears of joy upon receiving news of his selection. Unlike the rest of his fellow draftees, however, Sam had his boyfriend by his side as he took the call from his future employer. And upon extending a farewell to the other party on the line, the 24-year-old Sam lowered his phone from his ear, embraced his partner, and kissed him on the lips. With an act borne out of unbridled jubilation, Sam had taken this memorable instant in time and humanized it beautifully for the entire world to see.

The world doesn’t always know how to comprehend the unfamiliar, however, and thus some of the reaction to Sam’s personal achievement was angry and ugly. That with which we’re uncomfortable inspires perplexity. Perplexity, it seems, leads to fear. And fear brings out our most authentic, often unfortunate, emotions.

So it was that a handful of terrified ignoramuses lashed out at whoever would indulge their plight, conveying angst over the rapid evolution of the world around them, a world that had become far too tolerant to their liking, a world that was all but forcing them to understand and accept others’ differences, a world that refused to allow the deliberately obtuse to stubbornly exist in a cloudy haze of perpetual misunderstanding. The world had been challenging the simple-minded for years. This was one more challenge that the incompetent cretins could not overcome.

But what did we learn? The rest of us, that is. Not them. Not the morons. Their education has always been limited by an unwillingness to retain information and act accordingly using the knowledge they’ve been given. That’s just one thing the rest of us can take away from all of this.

An unwise local politician once quipped that sports provide “close to zero” cultural value. There are countless reasons for why this statement is flat-out wrong, but maybe none more evident than the cultivation we all received in watching our fellow humans manage their own perceptions in the wake of Donald Sterling’s insensitive remarks and Michael Sam’s memorable expression of unadulterated joy.

We learned that we haven’t yet moved past racism, but have certainly come far enough to expel racists from public consciousness as soon as they perpetuate their hatred.

We learned that while the vast majority of us will not tolerate a man who speaks out against those of differing ethnic backgrounds, there are far fewer of us who can yet tolerate a man displaying affection for another man.

We learned that when it comes to the rights of our constituents to pursue their desired sexual freedoms, we still have a fair deal of progress to be made on the path to enlightenment.

And most of all, we learned that we are evolving. For the better, in most cases. Because if you look back at our world’s history mere decades ago, we could not and would not have handled the ignorance of a Donald Sterling with such remarkable aplomb. Sterling’s comments would have gone unpunished and unscrutinized. Then, we would have allowed hatred to fester within our collective consciousness. Now, we stand united against such violations of civilization. And with any luck, years from now we’ll reminisce about those days gone by when we still had trouble wholly expunging the rancor of homophobes who, like racists before them, could do no better than angry ejaculations of miserable density.

The most prevalent question surfacing from the intolerant malcontents who can’t quite fathom a man kissing another man on their TV screens appears to be, “How do I explain this to my children?!” The bigots want the rest of us to explain to them how they can go about relaying this seemingly incomprehensible act of tenderness to their offspring. My answer to these people is straightforward and simple: don’t. Don’t explain this to your kids. Because if you do, you’ll inject your own misguided opinion. And in doing that, you’ll spread ignorance, same as you would if you insisted two plus two equals five or that the capital of Mexico is Tijuana, which it most certainly is not.

Kids are a blank slate, unencumbered by enmity and preconceived beliefs about the way the world works. If you can help it, let them formulate their own opinions about existence without too much of a subjective influence from the nimrod responsible for feeding and sheltering them. If you can do that, you might just raise a better person than your parents did. And for that, society will be grateful for your contribution.

But if you find yourself determined to unload your considerable lack of knowledge upon your child – or anyone else for that matter – try to remember the unwitting Asian girl on the playground who once upon a time made fun of me for being Asian. Think about hilariously stupid that scenario sounds. Think about how ludicrous it is that two decades later, I’m bringing up a memory I would no longer possess if it weren’t so ridiculously dumbfounding. That girl in all her uninformed glory could be you. You don’t want that.

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