Film comedy fans are celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ landmark film which Entertainment Weekly said “redefined comedy forever.” It’s the story of a couple of crooked politicians in 1874 who appoint a black prisoner the sheriff of a Western town so they can drive out the townspeople and build a railroad through it. The movie, famous for its outrageous characters and a singularly hilarious beans-around-the-campfire scene, uses the “n” word 17 times, according to various Internet sources. Yet “Blazing Saddles” is on most critics’ lists among the funniest comedies of all time.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made controversial remarks about African-Americans in a private conversation that was recorded and later made public. Although he didn’t use the “n” word, he’s been found–in the court of public opinion–guilty of extreme racial prejudice, and has subsequently been barred from basketball. Now it’s likely that the other National Basketball Association (NBA) team owners will force Sterling to sell the team.
So why do we celebrate a 40-year old movie that liberally sprinkles racial and other prejudices throughout, and yet we feel compelled to throw an 80-year old bigot out of professional basketball? Let me suggest a couple of reasons:
First, no one should be subjected to bigotry. Second, the NBA is an international brand. “In recent years,” wrote Alicia Jessop in Forbes in February, “the league has…develop(ed) its brand outside of the United States’ borders. The NBA has done this by, amongst other things, establishing league offices overseas, developing training facilities outside of the U.S. and supporting various goodwill initiatives globally.” Jessop noted that 312 international media members from 46 countries traveled to Houston to cover the NBA All-Star game last year.
As a worldwide brand, the NBA depends on goodwill, good PR, and projecting a positive image. Sterling’s comments put that image at risk.
Mel Brooks made “Blazing Saddles” to effectively laugh at prejudice and expose its heinous stupidity. It worked. The NBA is now compelled to punish that same prejudice– and do it very publicly. Your thoughts?