Bigotry, the NBA, and Free Speech

Virtually everyone in America is by now painfully aware that Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling is, by even casual analysis of his own words, a bigot. There is certainly no moral defense for his sort of perspective, but the general reactions of many people associated with the NBA, the fans, and social commentators have thoroughly demonstrated that simply because one side to a given contentious issue is clearly wrong does not guarantee that the other side is firmly planted on the moral high ground.


Let us briefly take a look at some of the relevant facts of the incident in question as they are currently known. Sterling’s mistress, V. Stiviano – herself a self-identified biracial Latina – apparently surreptitiously recorded Sterling during a prejudicial rant in which he expressed dissatisfaction with her insistence on appearing at games and in public with other black people, or some such nonsense. Once these sound bites hit the airwaves, so to speak, public outrage quickly and understandably exploded. Within days, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life from the sports organization and has urged his contemporaries to force him to sell the Clippers franchise via a compulsory ¾ ownership vote. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also withdrew its intent to present Sterling with a previously planned lifetime achievement award.


The issue here is not whether what Sterling said or thinks was/is right or wrong; to suggest otherwise is to commit fully to the straw man fallacy. Rather, the issue here is whether the subsequent popular calls for retribution are ethical responses unto themselves.   What concerns me, and what should concern anyone who favors freedom over the inevitable tyrannies of mob rule, is the substance of the retributions that the public and the league are apparently willing to sanction. No one possesses a natural right or otherwise righteous authority to forcibly punish another for something they think, believe, or say – not even the almighty federal government and certainly not the NBA. And make no mistake, if the NBA’s ownership decides to vote in favor of forcing a sale, the only way such a decision can be realistically enforced is through the violent actions of the government, or the direct threat of them. Such an approach is tantamount to Orwellian thoughtcrime and is antithetical to basic principles of liberty and justice. However deplorable his comments, the man was engaged in a private discussion, presumably in the privacy of his own home or some other isolated environment, out of public scrutiny and certainly not in any official team or league capacity. Invoking the old “sticks and stones” children’s rhyme, he broke no laws (in this case, more to follow on that point later) and committed no infringement on another’s individual rights by speaking his ignorant mind. As a society, we must be very careful when deigning to forcibly punish someone for such relatively benign actions, lest we fall victim to our own inevitable blowback. Who among us can seriously or genuinely claim to have never thought or said anything in private that would offend someone somewhere? Indignation may follow that rhetorical question, but there simply exists no one person that is perfect or without sin in this world in some form or fashion.


Forcing someone to relinquish their property because of an expressed opinion, however offensive, is in no way an ethical approach to a real problem. And therein lays the fundamental conflict of principle: mob rule inherently fosters inequitable standards and a consequent lack of social justice. If Sterling’s non-criminal exercise of speech is worthy of de facto property confiscation and a lifelong ban by the league, where are commensurate punishments for the league’s rapists, drunken drivers, substance abusers, or those demonstrably prone to violence? Where was Latrell Sprewell’s lifelong ban for assaulting his coach, Dennis Rodman’s for battering a courtside cameraman, Rasheed Wallace’s for threatening a referee, or Vernon Maxwell’s for punching a fan? What about a lifetime ban for cross-city rival Pau Gasol’s bigoted behavior or Charles Barkley’s prejudicial comments? What would be the likely outcome if clandestinely-obtained audio recordings of NBA locker rooms were broadcast uncensored? Can anyone seriously suggest that such hypothetical recordings would not convey any offensive speech related to, say, women or homosexuals for instance?


Put in a different context for broader perspective, should the current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) be forcibly banned from Congress and forced to offload his property because of his ignorant racial comments, or should his analogous “consumers” decide for themselves if they are willing to associate with him as constituents?   Should MSNBC’s Chris Matthews likewise be punished for boneheaded speech, or should his viewership make that call? What about Jesse Jackson – should his disgusting but nonetheless free exercise of expression serve cause for such forced retribution? The punishment, as it were in this case, simply does not fit the “crime.”


Even syndicated columnist Dr. Charles Krauthammer, with whom even when I disagree (quite often) usually provides a well-reasoned, intellectual, and logical basis for his opinions, is lingering on the wrong side of this issue. Not even a full month ago, Dr. Krauthammer rightly pointed out that “the proper word for that attitude is totalitarian” with general respect to then-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s termination due his completely legal and entitled engagement in political activity that certain portions of society and the organization thought were prejudicial. But with this new controversy, Krauthammer stated earlier this week that “[Sterling’s] got a First Amendment. But he doesn’t have to have a franchise in the NBA. He will be out. …he shouldn’t own this team.” Terminating an employee for cause related to image and goodwill is one thing, but endorsing a forcible confiscation of property is quite another altogether, a distinction that should be self-evident.


And here is the real kicker: Sterling’s prejudice is not even a new revelation for people who were actually paying attention. As NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out in a recent opinion piece for Time, Sterling settled a Department of Justice housing discrimination lawsuit in 2009 based on his real estate dealings, and was subject to an employment discrimination suit involving former executive Elgin Baylor. If punishment is due, these are actual crimes he allegedly committed for which he could have been forcibly punished consistent with due process at that time.


To be clear, Sterling is justly due no sympathy as an individual, but my worry is rooted in the disturbing trend that seems to be steadily permeating society-at-large. When one actor in a conflict is clearly wrong, that fact alone does not automatically or inherently guarantee that the respondent is morally superior in his/her reaction(s). Only a constant eye toward principle, ethics, and reason can temper the often corrupting affect of raw emotions, however justified those emotions may be. This is not to suggest that such an unabashed bigot, whether legitimately revealed or not, should go unaddressed, but forcible property forfeiture is not an ethical response to the expression of bad ideas – good ideas are. There are other available alternatives that are commensurate with individual rights and free markets, such as public denouncement, shame, and ridicule and boycotts by the fans, players, and sponsors alike, which are both far more effective and far more ethical forms of behavior modification in this context. “Hateful and hurtful words have natural and probable consequences where the people are free to counter them. … The most effective equalizer for hatred is the free market.” If getting Sterling out of the league is the ultimate goal, there can be no doubt that a refusal by its players, fans, and sponsors to willingly engage in commercial exchanges with him would quickly render his self-interest to clutch to the team far less financially attractive – problem effectively solved, and no one has to sacrifice their own principles in the process.


Of course, this last point is predicated on the assumption that doing the right thing is more important than money and entertainment – and therein lays the likely rub. The NAACP accepted money for years from Sterling, despite these previous incidences. There can be no reasonable defense that the organization was simply unaware of his ongoing legal issues; the more likely scenario is that because few people in the media and the fan base were tuned to these developments back then, the organization turned a blind eye to his antics in exchange for his donations. Once the audio of his ignorant comments escaped that relative control and exploded all over social media and SportsCenter, however, they could no longer feign ignorance. And of course, it is likely that the players did not boycott the games because they would have foregone their legal entitlement to prorated salaries and bonuses. Even Stiviano, a minority herself, chose to benefit materially from a relationship with a bigot rather than cut association with him over his views (clearly known to her prior to this latest incident). With all of this taken in sum, the sad conclusion that this incident seems to suggest is that intolerance is tolerable when it accompanies money and/or fringe benefits and is camouflaged from public view.


On a side note, Stiviano likely violated state law when she recorded Sterling without his permission or knowledge. Given that she was willing to tolerate his bigotry in exchange for material gain and/or companionship prior to this incident, but will no longer benefit from the now-presumed terminated relationship, and the fact that she risked criminal and/or civil consequences for her own actions, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn that she stands (or at least believed she did at the time) to gain something else more valuable to her than the aforementioned. Perhaps a book deal is in the works. There are some conspiracy theories budding across the web that suggest that someone, maybe Magic Johnson, encouraged her to entrap Sterling with the ultimate intent of buying the team, because they/she knew he would spout vitriol and ignorance and thereby provide a justification for its sale. While this is all theory, and likely (hopefully) just hogwash, it is nonetheless worth considering why Stiviano went to all this trouble in the first place. I find it very unconvincing to suggest that she experienced a sudden case of conscience. Vengeance, maybe?


UPDATE (12 May 2014): It appears as though at least many of the NBA’s players “feel like no one in [Sterling’s] family should be able to own the team.” I guess the league has never heard of the concept of blood corruption, an illegitimate form of guilt by association that our nation roundly rejected at its founding. This is another example of the sort of prejudice that has thoroughly removed the offended parties from the moral high ground.


UPDATE (22 May 2014): Now Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, no stranger to speaking his mind, has waded into this fray. During a recent conference, he offered his own perspective on prejudice and judging when queried:


We’re all prejudiced in one way or another. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face – white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere – I’m walking back to the other side of the street. The list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. … I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.


Of course, cue the outrage – but he is certainly not wrong. Everyone on the planet is fallible and as such forms prejudicial presuppositions about others. Everyone – including NBA owners, players, and all others alike. I personally think Cuban recognizes just how terrible and unethical of a precedent it would set to force a sale of one’s property based on surreptitiously obtained private thoughts or discussions. I would absolutely be shocked if he votes in favor of forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers for this reason, however he seemed to suggest that he might do just that when he said “the thing that scares me about this whole thing is I don’t want to be a hypocrite, and I think I might have to be.” I cannot wait to see what the NBA commissioner has to say about this…


UPDATE (13 June 2014): And so begins the predictable blowback that the NBA’s handling of this issue has inevitably ushered in. It now appears that Donald Sterling has hired multiple private investigators to “dig up dirt” on other league owners and the commissioner himself. What are the odds that the investigators will meet with no success? Such is the environment cultivated when people effectively legitimize surreptitious violations of privacy and organizations effectively criminalize private speech and/or thoughts. The league and many fans have gotten what they wanted; now we will see if they indeed want what they get.



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