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Pyle: Even the richest now realize bigotry is bad for business

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published May 02 2014 05:37 pm • Last Updated May 02 2014 05:54 pm

As we fans of journalism — producers and consumers — cast around for someone to ride in and rescue us from our financial woes, our imagined knights in shining armor have taken a few main forms.

One is Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who actually likes to read newspapers, has bought a few in the last year or so, and apparently hasn’t been put off of the entire industry by the fact that I worked for him for four years. (Not that he noticed.)

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But Buffett may have bagged his limit and might not be looking to take in any more rescue dogs.

Another is the Internet billionaire, who may have sold off the business that made him wealthy and is looking for some new mountain to climb.

But these folks have not been so interested in legacy titles as they are in launching new, online ventures, like Ezra Klein’s Vox or Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept.

The third is the professional sports franchise owner, guys who made a ton of money in something else and are willing to sink a lot of it into a venture that is less about profit than about doing, and being seen doing, things that build community. And can be fun.

It has recently happened that way in Boston and Minneapolis. But the problem with that dream is, well, the national media have been full of little else the past week or so.

None of us wants to work for, or to read, a newspaper owned by Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

One bad apple, though, shouldn’t spoil the dream. After all, 29 other NBA owners, including Utah’s Miller family, are rapidly disassociating themselves from Sterling and all he represents.

And they are doing so for one or both of two reasons. One, they are truly sickened by what they heard on the surreptitious recording of their former college making 19th century remarks about he looks down on black people.

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Two, even if they aren’t so troubled, or surprised, by the recording, having him be the public face of their organization right now constitutes the biggest sin of the marketplace.

It’s bad for business.

People didn’t always think so, of course. For years, especially as the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced people to think about it, there were businessmen who would excuse their refusal to hire black employees or serve black customers by claiming that it wasn’t the business owner who was a bigot, it was his customers. Customers, we were told, who would avoid, boycott or outright destroy his business if he capitulated to the outside agitators.

Now the opposite can be true.

As we fight the civil rights war of the early 21st century, gay rights and marriage equality, some retrograde politicians have tried to create a conscientious objector status for some enterprises. But many of those very businesses have gone out of their way to make it clear that banning customers from your door is at least as uneconomic as it is unjust.

In Arizona, Mississippi and other states where legislators were pushing bills that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve LGBT customers, many retailers have decorated their doors with stickers that say, "We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling."

To return to the rich guy sports owner metaphor, the ideal is laid out in the book "October, 1964," one of the lesser-known (and shorter) works by David Halberstam.

It was the parallel stories of how the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees made their way to the World Series that year. It is a tale very much tied up in the larger culture of the time, as black people moved into the American mainstream, and how the teams that did that most aggressively became the most successful.

The Cardinals had been among the holdouts on that score. Until the team was bought by August Busch, the local brewery tycoon.

As Halberstam tells the tale, Gussie Busch was asking his manager and coaches why the team he just bought didn’t have any black players. They couldn’t really tell him.

Busch, the story goes, was offended, both as a human being and as a businessman.

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