Monthly Archives: March 2017

Donald Sterling and the problem of pro sports ownership

So Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, stands accused of having made remarks of unbelievable crassness and flavored with a racism that would bring a tear to the eye of Cliven Bundy.

Are you surprised? Me neither. Sterling’s record of difficulty with racial issues is well-documented, including two lawsuits (one from the federal government) alleging racially discriminatory rental practices at his real estate properties. He settled both for millions.

Then there was the lawsuit from long-term Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor accusing Sterling of racial and age discrimination; Baylor lost his case in a 2011 jury trial. Another accusation of racist rhetoric, attributed to veteran college basketball coach Rollie Massimino, dates back to the 1980s. And there’s more.

The fact that Sterling has survived all these prior dustups — and the betting here is that he’ll survive this one, too — says less about Sterling himself than it does about America’s unhealthy relationship with its pro sports tycoons and about the unhealthy structure of pro sports leagues.

Let’s start with the character of the men (and a few women) who have been members of this tiny club. Almost all of them are self-made businesspersons or inheritors of great wealth. Either way, they’ve come up in the world unaccustomed to having their personal whims thwarted. As my former colleague Tom Mulligan reported in a 1996 profile of Sterling, his real estate wealth gave him “the luxury of being able to say no to anything and anybody.”

People in that position have difficulty with impulse control, not to mention empathy with other humans. Add the slavish sycophancy that comes to owners of businesses (like sports teams) that are commonly mistaken for civic assets, and their concerns about how they’re perceived by the public evaporate completely.

Why should a pro sports magnate care about his public reputation when municipal leaders are willing to throw billions of dollars his way to build a new stadium or arena? And if his local leadership balks, there’s always another city willing to step in.

The structure of pro leagues, which are basically alliances of independent entrepreneurs, exacerbate these people’s worst instincts. Consider the behavior that the leagues have found acceptable.

Wrecking a team for profit? Jeffrey Loria has done that with baseball’s Miami Marlins. He’s still an owner.

Abandoning a loyal fan base for profit? Bob Irsay of the NFL Baltimore Colts did that, infamously moving the team to Indianapolis in the dead of night. His son Jim is still the owner of the team.

Failing to invest for success on the field? Lots of guilty parties here, including Peter Angelos, whose Baltimore Orioles have made it into the postseason three times in his 21 years of ownership. Sterling is a standout in this category: Since he acquired the Clippers in 1981, it’s had five winning seasons, going 930-1,646 — a winning percentage of .361.

Felonious activity? Eddie DeBartolo Jr., owner of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, pleaded guilty to a federal felony in connection with the solicitation by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards of a bribe for a casino license. DeBartolo relinquished control of the team, but this year he was a finalist for the NFL Hall of Fame, and he still hankers for a return to NFL ownership — a goal that several owners say they would favor.

Racism? Leaving Sterling aside, Marge Schott, onetime owner of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, had a long history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Baseball finally suspended her as the team’s principal owner, but she retained a financial interest.

Leagues are reluctant to take firm action against owners for several reasons. One is that their authority to do so, absent some truly egregious act, is murky — even overt racism is a judgment call. Figuring out what to do with an orphaned team is a headache. And fellow owners are loath to lower the bar, possibly because not a few of them have unsavory histories of their own to worry about.

How I Made It: Anita L. DeFrantz, president of the LA84 Foundation

The gig: Olympic medalist Anita L. DeFrantz, 61, is president and a director of the LA84 Foundation, the charitable organization that runs off an endowment of surplus funds from the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In the three decades since those games, LA84 has donated more than $214 million to more than 1,100 Southern California youth sports programs, providing opportunities for more than 3 million children. DeFrantz has spent nearly half her life with the organization, formerly known as the Amateur Athletic Foundation. She was named president in 1987.

Champion performer: DeFrantz was on rowing teams that won six U.S championships and reached the world championship finals four times. She earned a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics and a silver medal in the 1978 world rowing competition. She made the rowing team for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but couldn’t compete because of the U.S. boycott. DeFrantz was elected to the International Olympic Committee in 1986 and to the IOC’s executive board in 1992. In 1997, DeFrantz was the first woman elected vice president of the organization. Last year, she was elected again to the IOC board.

No sports allowed: DeFrantz was born in Philadelphia; her mother, Anita, was a teacher and her father, Robert, was a social worker and community activist. DeFrantz was raised in Indianapolis, a segregated place her father called “the northern-most Southern town in the country.” DeFrantz said she had been an avid swimmer since age 4, but opportunities to compete were limited. “There were no sports allowed for African American girls in Indianapolis. Nothing. Negatory.”

Don’t debate with fate: DeFrantz’s rowing career “had to be fate,” she said. It began relatively late in life, at age 19, in her sophomore year at Connecticut College. DeFrantz, broad-shouldered and nearly 6 feet tall, was striding across campus when the rowing coach rushed over to recruit her for the team. “I loved the idea that you weren’t doing harm to anybody,” DeFrantz said. “Your ego is the only part of you that can get hurt.”

A legal turn: After graduating from Connecticut College with a degree in political philosophy in 1974, she attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School as she trained for the 1976 Olympics. DeFrantz said she realized “my rights as a citizen had been either stomped on through law or had been protected through law. That, to me, made it worth pursuing as a career, learning the language of power.” Her focus on public interest law led her to a job at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, where she worked for nearly three years.

One more Olympics: “I decided I wanted no regrets” about making one more attempt at Olympic gold, she said. DeFrantz got a job as a pre-law advisor at Princeton University while she trained. But it was a race she couldn’t win. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, setting in motion a series of American responses that culminated in President Carter deciding that the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

A different medal: DeFrantz was at the forefront of the fight to change Carter’s mind, thinking “you cannot take from me my right to compete.” DeFrantz even filed suit against the U.S. Olympic Committee on behalf of herself and 25 other U.S. athletes, arguing that the committee had exceeded its authority and violated the athletes’ constitutional rights. For her leadership role in opposing the boycott, DeFrantz eventually was awarded an IOC Bronze Medal of the Olympic Order.

A new Olympic dream: In 1981, DeFrantz was approached by Peter V. Ueberroth, who offered her a job with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Unsure at first, she said, “I finally realized he wasn’t just being nice to me because of what happened in 1980.” Within 10 minutes of her arrival, she said, “I realized Los Angeles was a place where I felt completely comfortable.” DeFrantz was one of the committee’s core employees and organized housing for the athletes.

The value of sports: “We overlook it as something children do. As adults, we view it as entertainment. But there is an intrinsic value to sport, not only in teaching teamwork,” DeFrantz said. “It’s important for our nation. It teaches a lot about our abilities to be an agent of success.”

Old school influences: Aside from her parents, “my great grandmother on my mother’s side was a very strong woman. She once told me that I could be anything I wanted to be,” DeFrantz said. Harriet Tubman was another role model. “The fact that she got herself out of slavery and then went back and helped another 300 people escape to freedom. She was someone who gave back her whole life to her community.”

Letters: Sports for all — women included

As John McEnroe famously said, “You cannot be serious.” A study of 19 subjects concluded that women watch sports merely as a way to connect with their husbands? Oh, those poor passive dears with no control of the remote and nothing better to do.

I’ll have to run this by my friend Kim, with whom I owned season tickets to the Kings for seven years and who got up at the crack of dawn to watch the finals of Wimbledon. Or Mary, whose Sunday worship of the Packers rivals my own for the Patriots. My morning Tour de France ritual is of scant interest to my husband, but we did watch golf all afternoon last Sunday — and he didn’t have to talk me into it.

O.C. veterans propose cemetery on former Marine base

When American Legion Chaplain Bill Cook peered through the chain-link fence at the windswept landscape — a broken runway, scrubby fields and green foothills in the distance — he remembered the Phantoms.

The fighter jets were once a regular sight, slicing through the air over what was for decades a bustling military base.

“The jets would just roar,” he said on a recent afternoon at the old U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Now the Vietnam veteran is leading the charge to transform a small piece of that land into a final resting place for Orange County’s veterans.

Cook and others have been pushing for a veterans cemetery here since El Toro closed in 1999, but the idea is finally gathering steam as the old base is transformed into a sprawling park and neighborhoods of new homes.

The proposal has gained the support of legislators, county supervisors, city officials and veterans groups, though some have worried about a sustainable funding source.

But the most daunting hurdle may well be placing a cemetery next to planned tracts of homes that are being marketed to Asians.

The developer who is building the thousands of homes on the rim of the Orange County Great Park has consulted a feng shui master to review the names of streets, the bends in the roadways and the design of the homes to ensure a proper flow of energy.

In a city that is already 40% Asian, it is expected that the new homes — many which will hit the market with listing prices over $1 million — will be sold to buyers arriving from Asia.

In the early 1940s, when the base was teeming with soldiers training for war, the airfield was isolated among vast orange and avocado groves.

But as the high-end suburbs of South County fanned out, the base became hemmed in by tract homes, schools and shopping centers. The Marines finally left in 1999.

What they left behind was an enormous stretch of land, about 4,600 acres dotted with abandoned barracks and hangars and crisscrossed with runways. The transformation into parkland, sports fields and homes follows years of legal disputes and political wrangling.

Bill Sandlin, a member of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, believes there’s still room here for those who served their country.

“I want to do all I can to make sure this place maintains some of its Marine identity,” said Sandlin, who transported Marines headed for the brig between the base and Camp Pendleton in the early 1960s

Local veterans say the former base would be the perfect site for a much-needed military cemetery in a region with a growing — and aging — population of veterans.

The sprawling Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood has been closed to new burials for about 20 years, and the Riverside National Cemetery is miles from Orange and Los Angeles counties, far more populated areas.

Stephen Jorgensen, who oversees memorials and cemeteries for the California Department of Veterans Affairs, estimated that about 14,000 veterans die every year in Orange and Los Angeles counties. The Riverside cemetery, which Jorgensen ran for more than a decade, handles about 8,000 burials each year.

“I know we didn’t serve a lot of people out of those two counties, even though Riverside is the most active veterans cemetery in the country,” Jorgensen said.

In January, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) introduced a bill that would ask the federal Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant to create a state-run Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.

While the state would have to pay for its operation and upkeep, the federal government would be asked to come through with a grant for its construction.

In Irvine, where the retired base is located, the council has endorsed the idea and formed a committee charged with finding space in the park for a cemetery.

And if an Orange County state veterans cemetery becomes a reality, Jorgensen said, it could end up being the busiest in the country.

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But all that could collide with Emile Haddad’s vision for the Orange County Great Park and the areas surrounding it.

Haddad, president and chief executive of FivePoint Communities, sees neighborhoods of houses with shaded front porches, big, grassy backyards and easy access to the sports fields and tennis courts at the Great Park — a walkable community that harks back to a kind of “Dennis the Menace” era, he says.

FivePoint’s plan for the park itself, which the company agreed to help the city develop, includes vast amounts of parkland, including trails, a golf course, a wildlife corridor and a sports complex that would be twice the size of Disneyland.

What it does not include is a cemetery.

Haddad stressed that, in the end, the decision about whether to pursue a veterans cemetery in the park is the city’s.

“The land is not my land,” Haddad said.

Still, he said, it’s his job to make homes in FivePoint neighborhoods appealing to the people who want to buy them. And that market in Irvine is now dominated by Asian buyers.

Pavilion Park, one of the new neighborhoods, features multigenerational homes, with in-law units and side entrances.

While FivePoints declined to have its feng shui consultant speak with a reporter, Simona Mainini, a Beverly Hills-based feng shui master, said having a cemetery in the park could definitely lead to an “exponential” drop in property values.

“The bigger the cemetery, the farther away it should be from the residential area,” she said.

Haddad said FivePoint had “been extremely respectful of people who served on this base.”

Trees from the base were boxed to be replanted, and a veterans memorial on the grounds is in the works.

Veterans, though, see an allotment of the space as a small price to pay to honor those who left from El Toro and never came back.