Briefly, a couple of webzines (TMZ, Deadspin) released tapes that reveal the contents of conversations between Sterling and a V. Stiviano, the latter being commonly referred to as his girlfriend. Sterling is married, so it is a sign of the times that there wasn't a furor over him having a girlfriend. If you sit through the tape, you find Sterling making some remarkably tone-deaf comments directed at blacks, while arguing with her.
Immeasurable outrage later, the NBA came down hard on him. They banned him for life and the commissioner promised to get a three-fourths vote of the board of owners to force him to sell the team. For good measure, Sterling was fined $2.5 million. While many people denounced his remarks and applauded the punishment, no action was taken by any body of any government, despite the misplaced cries of abridgment of First Amendment rights. The First Amendment applies only to censorship by government, not to private bodies.
Was the punishment fair? Given that the NBA is a private institution, and such punishment is indeed within their charter, it certainly is a legitimate action. But given that we can still have opinions on the matter, here are ten things:
- While Donald Sterling is heard to have uttered ridiculously tone-deaf racist comments, racism is not against the law, however disgusting it might be.
- The government cannot and did not act against Sterling, rightly so, even if politicians like Obama denounced the remarks.
- The NBA was right in fining him while condemning his remarks.
- The lifelong ban was too severe, but perhaps it meets the offense. Time will tell if such punishment is simply reserved for racist remarks against blacks or will it be extended to other forms of bigotry as well.
- The move to force Sterling to sell the team is also too severe, and perhaps it too is commensurate with the offense. That action is not without peril. Suppose the NBA board of owners does not act in accordance with the commissioner's wishes, and Sterling stays on, what then?
- Will Sterling challenge the forcible sale of his team in a court of law? What if he prevails?
- How will the commissioner act the next time there is a speech or act of bigotry from another member of the NBA? Suppose that bigotry is directed towards Hispanics, Asians, or yes, homosexuals. What would make those actions any less vile, deserving of a lesser punishment?
- Here's a history of bans and suspensions levied by the NBA. Note that some were given multiple warnings before a permanent ban. Sterling does not have any such history of infractions in the NBA. Ron Artest, for example, has a history of violent involvements, and he was not banned permanently. Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich, and was merely suspended.
- Donald Sterling has a history of discrimination rooted in racism for which he paid no such price as he is doing now. That should be of greater concern.
- Contrast this with Kobe Bryant who used gay slurs during a game. Gay slurs and racial epithets are quite common in the NBA, and yet none seemingly rise to such drastic punishments.
Ah, so what should have been done instead? The NBA should have fined Donald Sterling about the same as they fine such infractions, perhaps suspended him for a while as well. Fans should have boycotted the Clippers, corporations withdrawn their endorsements, and players allowed to become unrestricted free agents by the NBA. An NBA team employs very few, so the other employees (not exactly highly compensated compared to the players) could be bailed out by the NBA itself. To compensate for the loss of revenue and severance expenses, the NBA could award another franchise, perhaps even in Los Angeles. That would make Sterling irrelevant, probably even enticing him to sell the Clippers.
In other words, a massive social boycott that'd force Sterling to sell and go, while as a society we declare that such racism will not be tolerated.