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Oh, Won’t Someone Think of the Billionaires?

Systematic Advanced Idiocy seems to be infecting some of the richest people in American sports. Can we save them before it’s too late?

To paraphrase Mr. Hemingway’s famous reply to Mr. Fitzgerald — yes, the rich are different from you and me: They have more money than us, and a great many of them are a special kind of moron. Those of us who follow the sports-entertainment-industrial complex for a living take this as a given. Sooner or later, one of the various gazillionaires on our beat — whether that’s a gazillionaire who plays the game, a gazillionaire who broadcasts the games, or a gazillionaire who owns a franchise within the complex — will do something so existentially boot-headed that it makes us wonder how this person didn’t trade his last dollar for a bag of magic beans. As it so happens, just in the past two weeks, we have had two shining examples of the way that our sports gazillionaires, as the old Boston politician’s saw has it, could screw up a two-car funeral.

Let’s begin, briefly, with Donald Sterling. (And then, thereafter, let us wash our brains out with bleach.) Last week, you may have noticed, Sterling sold his Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer after NBA commissioner Adam Silver pushed Sterling to make a sale. Silver blackjacked Sterling — and his wife, Shelly, about whom more anon — into accepting $2 billion for a team that cost $12 million back in 1981. If Silver had been a little tougher on the Sterlings, they might own Guam by now. Shelly Sterling says Donald Sterling has been determined to be mentally incapacitated, his obvious incompetence in all other areas having been proven over the course of three decades. However, as soon as Silver loosened the thumbscrews, Sterling ran to his lawyers and announced that he would now be suing the NBA on antitrust grounds for another billion dollars. And this is not something I am making up, either.

There is pure cussedness and then there is pure cussedness. The smart play now for Sterling — and whoever the brainiacs are that he has advising him at the moment — is to take the money and disappear, and you can do some serious disappearing with 2 billion bucks. Hell, get the whole payout in one-dollar bills and hide under the pile. Instead, Donald Sterling is not going to take Steve Ballmer’s billions lying down. Oh, hell no. He’s going to use this golden opportunity for one more turn on the national stage to be Donald Sterling, the walking definition of having more money than sense.

But that wasn’t the best act to play the midway of the Rich Fools Carnival this week. Over here, under the big top, we have Phil Mickelson, golfing legend, part-time economic analyst and political pundit, and, if we’re to judge recent events in the light most favorable to him, perhaps the biggest sucker in two tasseled shoes. On Friday, it was reported that the FBI buttonholed Mickelson after his round at the Memorial to talk with him about his possible knowledge of — and involvement in — an insider-trading scheme. Mickelson is maintaining his innocence and says he intends to cooperate fully with the federal authorities, there being no such thing as an “informal” chat with the FBI. Donald Sterling would be suing Eric Holder by now.

The alleged scheme seems rather straightforward. In 2011, a legendary Wall Street carnivore named Carl Icahn was mounting a bid to take over the Clorox Company. (Bleach does seem to be an important, if curious, subtext to this column.) The folks at the Securities and Exchange Commission found their interest piqued by the fact that Mickelson and another man, William Walters, made a couple of trades at the same time, including trades that involved Clorox stocks. They wondered, as they are wont to do, if, maybe, you know, some information about Icahn’s activities may have somehow dropped into the ears of people like Mickelson and Walters. (For what it’s worth, Icahn never got the company after all.) This is what had the guys in the nice government suits walking up to Mickelson as he walked off the green last weekend.

In any event, this is a fine crew with whom Mickelson has entangled himself. Icahn is a walking relic of the Gekko Decade, the go-go, junk-bond-fattened 1980s that now seem almost innocent given the outright brigandage that nearly torched the world economy six years ago. Icahn’s specialty was finding “undervalued” companies and launching hostile takeovers financed with money from the Wall Street investment banks, mainly through the efforts of a financier named Michael Milken. Icahn then would run the companies through an economic chop shop, walking away with millions in profits while various businesses lay in ruins around him. Milken wound up going to prison for fraud. Icahn walked between the raindrops.

And William Walters, well, he plays in a different casino altogether. Walters gambles on golf, heavily, and so successfully that he has become rich enough to own courses. In 2011, in fact, Walters said on 60 Minutes that he once made $1 million on one round. The New York Daily News also presents a compelling case that Walters can finagle his handicap as well as Carl Icahn can finagle the penal code. The speculation is that, if there was anything hinky going on, it was that Icahn tipped Walters, who tipped Mickelson, with whom he plays regularly. Mickelson has a long history of gambling himself, but insists that he has cut way back since his son was born 11 years ago.

But what’s he doing there at all — a professional athlete, hanging around with a plutocratic gambler and a shady Wall Street lifer (which is pretty much the same thing, now that I think about it)? The easy answer is that Mickelson is simply playing in the world he inhabits, the world in which your IQ is measured precisely by your bank statement. It is a very, very strange place.

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Phil Mickelson is a proud 1-percenter. So are the people who pay him to wear their logos. These include KPMG, which was hip-deep in the shenanigans that nearly blew up the world, and Barclay’s, a British bank that was out there rigging the game even after 2008. (Billy Walters isn’t the only guy in this story who knows his way around a sandbag.) So are most of the people with whom he schmoozes during the pro-ams and the sponsor events. When the world economy was left nearly in ruins, Phil Mickelson was one of the people capable of building a throne out of the rubble.

And he’s not shy about telling you, either. In January 2013, Mickelson opined that, in his considered opinion, the country was being sold into socialist bondage because his personal income tax rate had begun to inconvenience him. This got him wild applause in certain circles. Later that year, he went on TV and said that some of the CEOs with whom he regularly knocks it around were reluctant to hire people, not because they prefer to sit on large mountains of cash, but because of the Affordable Care Act. To be completely fair to Mickelson, I’m sure he golfs with CEOs and I’m sure some of them told him that very thing. (Tip of the hat to Steve M. of No More Mister Nice Blog for gathering the Collected Works Of Phil Mickelson, Genius For Hire.)

The fact is that the social structure created within the era of vast and intractable income inequality is present in every institution of society. This definitely includes the institutions of our mass vehicles of entertainment, including sports. There are people working two jobs who would lose one of them just by coming within eight feet of an FBI agent. There are cops working double shifts who get bosses looking at them sideways if they’re spotted with a Wall Street shark and a career gambler. But Mickelson lives his life in one big casino in which there’s no real difference between Carl Icahn and Billy Walters and himself. The perks of wealth are simply assumed. Let the 10th man on some NBA roster get caught hanging with a numbers runner in his old neighborhood, and Adam Silver will be down on him like a 10-pound sledge. But Phil Mickelson says he will “cooperate” with the FBI in an investigation of a stock scam in which Walters and Icahn are also involved, and the folks who run the PGA don’t even look up from the buffet table. That is one of the perks to which Phil Mickelson is entitled because of the world he inhabits. Yes, the rich are different from you and me. They can be morons and survive. They also have better lawyers. 

Filed Under: NBA, Golf, Phil Mickelson, Shelly Sterling, DOnald Sterling, Steve Ballmer, Los Angeles Clippers

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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