NBA basketball owner Donald Sterling's viciously racist comments in the US remind again how lucky we are in New Zealand to have a comparatively settled racial landscape.

Sterling's comments also raise the issue of whether sport really does what it is supposed to — lead social change in areas such as race. You'd have to say, in spite of the fact that sport throws together different races and ethnic origins in a spirit of cooperation and coordination, that it doesn't. Overseas, at any rate. Not when you consider Liverpool ace Luis Suarez's racial taunting of Manchester United player Patrice Evra, Spanish fans making monkey noises and throwing bananas at black players, Bulgarian fans doing the same to black English players in one recent international football clash and latest news from South Africa that much of their sport remains divided by race 20 years after apartheid, with black-white equality in representation still a long way off in rugby and cricket.

But we seem a lucky country when Sterling's scarcely believable remarks to his girlfriend about not bringing blacks to his LA Clippers games are taken into account.

Some have seized on Sterling to expose the supposed myth of sport leading the way in terms of racial tolerance. Certainly the fact that Sterling was allowed to remain a team owner even though he was spectacularly well known as a billionaire slumlord who allegedly would not let apartments to Hispanics or blacks is a big fat chicken coming home to the NBA's roost. Years of property owning and management according to racist principles made Sterling so wealthy, he could afford to buy an NBA team - even if it was the Clippers who, until recently, were poor cousins to LA's premier team, the Lakers.


In 2003, few turned a hair when Sterling settled a lawsuit accusing him of trying to drive non-Korean tenants out of apartments he bought in Los Angeles.

In 2006, the US Justice Department sued him for allegations of housing discrimination in the same neighbourhood. The charges included statements he allegedly made to employees that black and Hispanic families were not desirable tenants. They smelled, apparently. In 2009, Sterling settled by agreeing to pay almost US$3 million after allegations he refused to rent apartments to Hispanics, blacks and families with children, the biggest settlement of its kind in US history.

You'd have to say that such a scenario could not happen here. First, what Sterling did to gather his fortune is illegal here and making any kind of racist statement is anathema. There just isn't the depth of feeling about the races that obviously still lingers in the hearts of some in the former stronghold of slavery.

Sport does lead social change — sometimes. Heard of Muhammad Ali? He didn't just change sport — he changed the world. He altered our perceptions of colour, race, religion, our views of war and pacifism and how to market oneself.

New Zealand may be far from perfect but our sport has gone a long way to crossing racial divides. When you train, eat, drink, socialise, shower with and rely upon team-mates, you cannot help but get to know and respect them, their views on life, their families and the like. Particularly in contact sports, racial barriers tend to be overcome by basic traits like loyalty, reliability and the pleasure of shared achievement.

There are and always will be morons who cling to racial stereotypes. But New Zealand sport has paved the way for a great degree of social acceptance and change. About the worst you hear these days is the hoary old saw (from those with brains that could be balanced on an ant's antenna) that rugby and league teams have too many Polynesians in them — inferring that only smart whites could play in pivotal positions like first five-eighths. Wonder what Mac Herewini, Lima Sopoaga, the Brumbies' Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano, Frano Botica, Ihaia West, Luke McAlister and Quade Cooper think about that?

There will always be differences between the races. I lived for a long time in Singapore where the three main races (Chinese, Indian and Malay) had plenty of differences but had managed to overcome them largely by learning each other's languages and cooperating for mutual benefit.

Yet that is the same place where a friend was told: "If you see an Indian and a snake crossing the road, watch out for the Indian" and where a local suggested I go home because I was taking a job from a Singaporean.

Some extremists and radicals take no comfort from the fact we are better off than many countries racially. The last time I wrote a piece like this, I was taken to task by Rawiri Taonui, a professor of indigenous studies at AUT, who misquoted my column, intimating I'd said everything was rosy in New Zealand's racist garden. He claimed I'd said that derogatory terms such as "black" exist in rugby only as "joshing terms of endearment".

The key passage in my column read: "No one would be daft enough to say that New Zealand sport and society is free of racism. Of course it isn't. But we do seem to have absorbed, as a nation and as the peoples who inhabit it, that the colour of the skin is not a subject for abuse or even comment in sport ... Comments like "black", "honky" and other racist terms that would be deeply inappropriate if used as a taunt are, instead, sometimes used as a term of endearment or as gentler joshing between members of rugby teams."

The professor omitted the words "honky" and "sometimes" in his rebuttal, entirely changing the meaning of the quote that formed the basis of his contention. Wonder why "honky" was omitted? Just goes to show that the facts shouldn't get in the way of a good agenda.

Still, Taonui had a point, as he argued there should be sterner penalties for racist statements here, in spite of his dubious method of making that point. Maybe, too, we need such slanted opinion to avoid the US syndrome — where the perceived "browning" of the country has led to heightened racial backlash by some extremists as white Americans face becoming a minority this century.

But I'd still say to Taonui: what would you rather have? New Zealand now or Donald Sterling?