Is Oprah Safe Enough for the NBA?

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Is Oprah Safe Enough for the NBA?
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Is Oprah Safe Enough for the NBA?

Remember when we speculated that if the NBA forced Donald Sterling to put the Los Angeles Clippers on the open market, he might net a tidy billion-dollar profit for his troubles?

Well, even with that fairly hefty price tag—and Sterling (for the moment) is still legally in possession of the team—a slew of prospective buyers are getting shiny-chinned at the thought of taking the reins, setting up the possibility of a bidding war, according to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

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The most noteworthy candidate to date is …. wait for it … Oprah Winfrey?

That’s right. According to a statement by her spokeswoman Nicole Nichols, Ms. Winfrey is currently in discussion with her pals, the music mogul David Geffen, who sought to buy the Clippers once before in 2010 but was rebuffed by Sterling, and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who similarly came up short in attempts to purchase the Golden State Warriors and the then-New Orleans Hornets, to assemble an offer.

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As was reported yesterday by ESPN.com, Oprah’s interest is sincere, but she’s far more likely to join the ranks of Drake, J-Lo and others when it comes to taking interest in the day-to-day affairs of the front office. As Geffen explained, “Oprah is not interested in running the team. She thinks it would be a great thing for an important black American to own [another] franchise.”

So even if she does end up owning the Clippers, Oprah won’t be abandoning her massive media empire to spend summers traveling to New Hampshire to scout senior college prospects at the annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. She’d be a figurehead, an owner-in-name-only. And for African-Americans and other minorities that do have a piece of a team in all of the major sports leagues, that has almost universally been the rule.

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It’s partly because being the guy in charge requires a degree of wealth that to date has evaded African-Americans. In 2014 there were 1,645 names on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires. Even though the bulk of these individuals hail from the United States, the only black American billionaire is (you guessed it) Oprah Winfrey.

There’s money, and then there’s owning-a-team money. It’s a luxury item that’s so highly valued and so desirous in part because, yes, it’s an incredibly profitable enterprise, but also because there are a fixed and finite number of franchises that are available, and those rarely ever come up for sale. Becoming the majority owner, therefore, requires being at absolute top of the food chain.

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Anything less, even if your bank account balance exceeds the GDP of some nations, and you’ll only have the wherewithal to purchase a relatively small minority share. In order to be considered a part of a group of the uber-rich that are set to buy a team, therefore, you have to bring something to the table that’s of value aside from bucketfuls of cash. Fame, for example.

For African-Americans, though, said celebrity has to be non-threatening and universal enough that their presence on the company masthead wouldn’t potentially cause an uproar or in any way “damage” the widespread appeal of the team. This calculus is loaded with all kinds of assumptions (which may in fact be true) about the ongoing prejudices of white America.

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Current minority owners such as Drake (Toronto Raptors), Will Smith, (Philadelphia 76ers), Shaquille O’Neal (Sacramento Kings) and Usher (Cleveland Cavaliers), Serena and Venus Williams, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Fergie (all with the Miami Dolphins) meet the above qualifications, as does the lone African-American majority owner in all of U.S. sports, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Magic Johnson, a part owner the Los Angeles Dodgers as well as a former minority shareholder in the Los Angeles Lakers, makes this list as well, and there were thoughts that he had an interest ascend to Sterling’s throne. It would have had a certain karmic symmetry, since a photo of him on Instagram was the catalyst for the latter’s bigoted screed.

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Johnson recently dispelled these rumors, saying, “When (Sterling) … me personally, that he didn’t want me to come to his games … then everybody says, ‘OK … Magic should buy (the Clippers).’ I never said that.”

But when an African-American that might be perceived as in any way scary or “controversial” does try to get his foot in the door, even if their ownership is largely ceremonial, there’s often a pushback.

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The musician and entrepreneur Jay-Z was a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets from 2004 to 2013. Despite having little to no say in the team’s actual basketball decisions and owning less than 0.7%, he was in many ways the public face of the franchise, taking a hand in the design their current uniforms, playing a major role in their marketing strategy and frequently appearing courtside with his equally-famous wife, Beyoncé.

For Phil Mushnick of the New York Post, this was an egregious offense. In 2012, ++he wrote++ [http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2012/05/new_york_post_c_1.php] (and be warned, this is a column that Donald Sterling probably had framed on his wall):

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“As long as the Nets are allowing Jay-Z to call their marketing shots—what a shock that he chose black and white as the new team colors to stress, as the Nets explained, their new “urban” home—why not have him apply the full Jay-Z treatment?

Why the Brooklyn Nets when they can be the New York N———s? The cheerleaders could be the Brooklyn B——hes or Hoes. Team logo? A 9 mm with hollow-tip shell casings strewn beneath. Wanna be Jay-Z hip? Then go all the way!”

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Reggie Jackson, a player who was reviled in some circles and frequently clashed with baseball’s establishment, failed in his to buy the Oakland Athletics even though his group offered $25 million more than the eventual winner. “I was devastated emotionally,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to do anything.”

Jackson was so distraught and felt so betrayed that he actually showed up at the hospital room of Commissioner Bud Selig at 7 a.m. emotionally wounded and stammering with disbelieving rage at what he perceived as a conspiracy to bar him from ownership.

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Granted, the potential to alienate a portion of the fan base/possible customers is a standard that crosses racial boundaries; Rush Limbaugh’s inclusion in a group attempting to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams was ended after an uprising by players and fans alike. Bill Maher doesn’t come close to touching Rush on the divisiveness scale, but he’s no stranger to alienating rhetoric. However, that hasn’t stopped him from maintaining a minority share of the New York Mets.

So no, no matter how much giddy enthusiasm Rick Ross or P.Diddy or Floyd Mayweather or Dr. Dre express at the possibility of being the Clippers’ chief honcho, they’re not going to be allowed in this particular door. Frankie Muniz, on the other hand, has a decent shot.

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Given the national headlines that have been generated by Donald Sterling, the NBA is going to make absolutely sure that the next owner is not only clean as a whistle, but a choice that’s seen as uniting and possibly even inspiring. Oprah certainly qualifies in that regard, and she also has the means to be a majority owner, should she so desire. But as Geffen stated above, she is set on changing the perception of pro sports with regards to minority ownership, not actually seizing control of the means of production. So if Oprah does end up buying the Clippers, her authority will be limited to sitting behind a dais during the NBA’s draft lottery, and if the ping pong balls happened to fall her way, bellowing, “You get the first overall pick! And you get the first overall pick! And you get the first overall pick!”

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