Skip to main content

Dominique Wilkins: Time to talk about racism

By Dominique Wilkins
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NBA Hall of Famer, Hawks exec Dominique Wilkins happy Sterling banned for life
  • Wilkins: Sterling's offensive comments an opportunity to speak out against racism
  • Wilkins: Sterling will fade into the background, just one ignorant, misguided outlier
  • Wilkins says racism in U.S. bigger than one man and conversation must continue

Editor's note: Dominique Wilkins, retired professional basketball player and a vice president of basketball operations with the Atlanta Hawks, was an NBA All-Star nine times and is one of the all-time leading scorers in the history of the NBA. In 2006, Wilkins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I am extremely proud of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He made the exact right move in banning Donald Sterling from the NBA for life and fining him $2.5 million for his offensive, racist comments. It sets a definitive tone not only for how we deal with racism in the NBA but also how we should be dealing with it in the country as a whole.

I am not a politician. I am not a legislator. I'm not an activist. I do have fame. I do have accolades. I played professional basketball. But all of this aside, I am a man, a black man.

I grew up in the inner-city street projects of Baltimore, moving to North Carolina when I was 16. My passion and love for a round orange ball has taken me to unimaginable heights, earning me a measure of success in the NBA. I have lived the majority of my life in the bright and narrow cast of a spotlight, so I know what it is like to live with the obligation to shape words into politically correct statements, and to mute my thoughts in moments of emotion. At times it is my job to do so.

Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins

Hearing about, and then listening to, the Donald Sterling recordings early Saturday left me and my NBA family disgusted. As one of the premiere professional leagues in the world, we take pride in carrying the banner as one of the most diverse sports industries, with a commitment to fair racial hiring practices. More than 80% of our players are men of color, and well over a third of them are African-American.

Again, I'm no activist. I have turned down more press requests and interviews surrounding the abhorrent comments of Sterling in the past two days than I care to number. And just when I thought I would refocus my energy on the most evenly matched NBA playoffs in my recollection, CNN offered me the opportunity to depress my mute button and comment on what has become a much bigger story than one man's racist comments.

Racism is a real problem that has survived through generations and generations in this country. It is time to use the opportunity to further the race discussion.

Let me be clear. In my career as a basketball player and now as an executive with the Atlanta Hawks organization, I have never been subjected to racism in my workplace. But there is racism, sexism, bigotry everywhere in our society. As a black man growing up in the South, I have, of course, experienced it.

There are many stories surrounding the Sterling recordings; the motivation, who was involved, and so on. But the focus needs to turn to whether or not we will allow a multibillion dollar league and a country of multicultural influences to be consumed by the news cycle noise.

The conversation must continue on a broader scale. This is bigger than basketball.

Will this moment fade into the background? Or will we as leaders of industry and community meet the need for continued discussion about the prevalence of racism in our country?

Writer: 'Let's not stop at the easy part'
Should NBA players protest racism?
Donald Sterling's wife: He's not racist

We live in a society where public perception dictates reality. So we carefully craft and weave sound bites and statements, giving the public enough until it moves into the next news cycle. The noise consumes 24 hours. Distracted, preoccupied, the public moves on to the next story.

Can the gap be closed? I for one am clearly choosing to accept the responsibility yet again to craft and weave my words in the spotlight in this case to open up and invite the continued conversation on racism.

As professional athletes we live a privileged life. We're blessed to make a living in line with the market, and the market generates billions of dollars only thanks to the fans that pay to watch our sports and buy our brands. But we are employees at the end of the day.

We expect a safe and fair environment to do what we are paid to do. We expect to advance in executive positions where qualifications dictate and where we have been given the opportunity to shine -- not because of our race or gender, but because of our abilities. We pour our passion into our jobs, and we accept our paychecks gladly.

Just like any other work space, we will always run across people who will be jealous of the individual success of another or the flip side of that, find ourselves boxed in because of the direct selfish intentions of the powers in positions above you. In the competitive business of professional sports, there will always be those in positions of ultimate power whose job it is to dictate your very future based on a laundry list of reasons.

As an executive with a level of significant impact and inherent power, you are expected to carry yourself with dignity, respect, integrity and thoughtfulness. A leader should exhibit these qualities at all times. I have been extremely fortunate to play for and work for some of the greatest owners the NBA has ever had, and I continue to value those relationships because of the qualities they showed not just in business, but more important, in life.

I feel deep disdain that this discussion of race was generated out of the highest level of the very sport that has given me so much happiness, confidence and success. It is with my obligation as a representative of the NBA to uphold the values we live and lead by as well as share my experiences with the next generation to make our sport and community better. It is my deep desire to impress upon current and future players that NBA leadership will continue to strip away the layers of underlying and seemingly unchecked racism.

As for Sterling's comments, they really mean nothing in the big picture. In the end, he will be one man, one ignorantly misguided outlier who galvanized and brought even closer the tightknit community of the NBA. He will be consumed by the noise of yet another news cycle and forgotten.

It is incumbent upon us as executive leaders and community leaders to continue to be outspoken to ensure the lessons of this moment do not become part of that same noisy news cycle.

The conversation is way bigger than any one man.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT