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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?

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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.

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