NBA fans were poised for another enjoyable postseason last month. They were gearing themselves up to see if the Heat could three-peat, the Spurs could get their revenge, or if the Pacers or Thunder could get hot enough to steal the conference crown and earn a trip to The Finals. And just when you thought it was safe to focus all of your NBA energy on the 2014 playoffs…
An audio recording was leaked to TMZ that detailed Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling making disparaging remarks about African-Americans to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano. On the tape, a clearly-distraught Sterling gets agitated about Stiviano’s posting on Instagram of pictures of her with Magic Johnson and other black basketball stars. He also tells Sterling tells her not to bring Johnson or other black players to games and reveals his prejudices about minorities in general. In response, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver makes history by prohibiting Sterling from coming to any NBA games, practices, or functions and banning him from anything to do with the franchise, while also fining him $2.5 million. Silver has also openly expressed his intention to persuade owners to vote for a forced sale of the team.
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: the opinions that Sterling expressed on the recording can be accurately described as… well, pick your adjective: inappropriate, racist, bigoted, prejudiced, demeaning, archaic, out-of-touch, astonishing, and xenophobic. There’s really no defense for having those views in 2014 America. And this article in no way supports, endorses, or even empathizes with the content of Sterling’s remarks or the beliefs behind them. It’s also obvious that it was necessary and appropriate for the NBA to address these comments swiftly and substantively.
But giving Sterling the Pete Rose treatment may very well turn out to backfire on Silver and the league itself. This unprecedented punishment, along with the circumstances under which it was imposed, is rife with problematic outcomes and unintended consequences which could potentially dog the NBA for a long time to come.
Here are ten reasons why Sterling’s sentence was not the wisest choice:
10. It Was Based on Information Taken Out of Context
Let’s all keep in mind that the damning evidence came from a private (and emotional) conversation between two people. Stop for a second and think really hard about some of the remarks you’ve made to friends or loved ones, especially the stuff you may have said during a heated argument or fight. If someone judged you solely on the basis of those comments, would that paint an accurate portrayal of your character? That’s the problem with forming opinions based on heated statements not intended for the public: they’re quite often presented without context. Think about it: are we really convinced that Alec Baldwin thinks that his daughter is a “rude, thoughtless little pig?”
Again, his views are not acceptable, we can’t explain this enough.
9. It Penalizes Thoughts Instead of Actions
Again, Sterling‘s beliefs that were expressed on the tape are deplorable and bigoted. And had he made these statements during a speech, in front of reporters, or even within a conversation that wasn’t behind closed doors, there would be no question as to whether their content would be construed as public. But his thoughts were expressed in a private conversation with a confidant. And not only is there an absence of discrimination claims against Sterling in his NBA dealings (the strange accusations of J.J. Redick notwithstanding), but he was set to receive an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award this month for giving game tickets to inner city youths and donating funds to minority charities. Do we really want to live in a world where we can be excluded and judged based on private thoughts instead of public acts?
8. It Has a Chilling Effect on Privacy
Now that this audio has been revealed and used to penalize Sterling, you can bet that all other NBA owners are scrambling to remember everything they may have said in confidence and whether it can get them kicked out of the league. In an age where more images and conversations are recorded than ever before (thanks, NSA), the owners may be wondering if they have any skeletons which might be exposed in a similar fashion in the future. Stiviano and her lawyer say that Sterling knew he was being recorded, but that claim has yet to be objectively verified – and if it’s false, making the recording was likely illegal. In any case, the remaining owners are worried that other videos or tapes might “surface” which portray them in an unflattering light. And given that Sterling might respond with a lawsuit against the NBA, the likelihood of any such information being discovered increases dramatically. Is that really good for the league in the long run?
7. It Sets the Stage for a Protracted Legal Battle
On that note, it’s logical to predict that Sterling won’t take this sentence lying down. If he is indeed expelled from the NBA by its owners, Sterling – who reportedly already has a propensity toward litigation – may very well file a lawsuit against the league, the commissioner’s office, and/or its owners. Granted, many of his claims may not be firmly rooted in law, but one thing’s for sure: such a suit could drag on through the courts for years. This risks much more negative press for the NBA, which could have an effect on its bottom line. And since Silver already slapped Sterling with a lifetime ban, he has no leverage over Sterling to make the Clippers’ owner settle the case out of court – unless he backtracks and rescinds or lightens the punishment.
6. It Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Punishments
Imagine that it’s the near future, and another NBA owner gets drunk, climbs behind the wheel, and kills a child. (It could happen. Keep in mind that Lakers owner Jerry Buss got a DUI in 2007). Perhaps the owner even apologizes profusely afterward, admits he has a problem with alcoholism, and vows to get help and pay restitution to the youngster’s family. Now, consider the punishment Silver assessed against Sterling. Given that the commissioner banned an owner for life and fined him $2.5 million just for spoken words on a recording, can he really impose a more lenient punishment against drunk driving which can potentially harm someone? You can insert different offenses into this scenario (domestic abuse, insider trading, even assault on a fan) but still come out with the same result. The fact remains the same: Silver has painted himself into a corner with the harsh consequences leveled for Sterling’s statements.
5. It Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Speech
Sterling was discovered to have made racist statements and was banned for life. All right. Now suppose that an NBA owner makes a similar remark which denigrates women. Or homosexuals. (Could you see an owner making a private comment to the effect of, “I’m worried that signing Jason Collins would hurt our team’s locker room chemistry?”). If such a comment gets out and Silver doesn’t impose a similar penalty against the offending owner, doesn’t that show favoritism for minorities at the expense of gays or women? It’s a near certainty that feminist and gay-rights groups would call out Silver for his inconsistency, and they would have a point. With everything else being equal, can we really claim that speech about race discrimination is any worse than that which concerns sexual orientation or gender discrimination? More importantly, does the NBA want to send that message to its fans?
4. It Sends a Mixed Message to Players
Certainly, a case can be made that the misconduct of owners should be handled differently than that of NBA players, given the owners’ influence on the league as a whole. That said, what happens the next time it is revealed that an NBA player used the N-word? Even in a non-slur context? (It happens on the court and in the locker room all the time.) Are fines for these offenses suddenly going to skyrocket for players? And if not, does that send a message that public expressions of overt racism are treated less harshly that private revelations of bigotry? Remember, Sterling didn’t use the N-word on the tape.
3. It Sends the Message That Silver Bowed to Public Pressure
As previously mentioned, Adam Silver should be congratulated for acting in a swift and timely fashion once the audio came to light. However, his unprecedented punishment of Sterling raises the question that the commissioner was unduly influenced by public reaction. The expression of these sentiments by public figures is appropriate and expected; certainly, Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Jarrett Jack and others have a right to voice their opinions on the matter. But Silver’s job requires him to filter out all of the ballast and make the decision that’s best for the league. Will observers look back on the commissioner’s ruling in the future and conclude that he exhibited a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis under pressure from statements made in the media?
2. It’s a Stiff Punishment for a First Offense
OK, OK. The list of Sterling’s racially-insensitive statements is fairly long and not in dispute. So it’s inaccurate to characterize his comments heard on the tape as anomalous. However, throughout all his tenure as the Clippers’ owner, from the racial discrimination housing lawsuits to the courtside statements, he was never once been sanctioned by the NBA. (Kevin Johnson raised this point as well.) And whatever you think of his behavior, the fact that the league allowed it to go unchecked for three decades is relevant. Because no matter how you slice it, Silver’s decision to discipline Sterling was the first time the league appeared to care about what Sterling said or did. It’s like if you drove to work for five weeks straight and drove 80 miles an hour by a cop car each time without anything happening; only to have him pull you over at the start of the sixth week, handcuff you, throw you in jail and impound your car. If the violation was so important as to warrant a harsh sentence, why did it take so long for discipline to be meted out?
1. It Represents a Missed Opportunity
Even if Silver feels that the punishment was just, a case can still be made that he could have achieved a better outcome by taking a different approach. Picture this: instead of banning Sterling forever, Silver imposes a stiff fine, suspends Sterling either for the 2014 postseason or a finite number of games, informs the owner that he is now subject to a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding racially-insensitive statements or actions, and demands a formal apology from Sterling (perhaps with some additional restitution, like charity donations). Sterling then has a choice: he can refuse to accept the punishment and the owners would have every reason to boot him out of the league – and the situation wouldn’t be much different than it is now. Or Sterling could issue a public and contrite apology, would refrain from further inappropriate behavior or statements indefinitely (or be shown the door if he slips up), and would not take any legal action; then Silver is applauded for his balance of discipline and prudence, and the world gets its happy ending where everyone perceives the NBA as a place where racism is not tolerated among its ownership. Remember this possible outcome as you read through story after story of Sterling’s NBA legal maneuvering in the months and years to come.