Donald Sterling’s Views on Race May Not be the Most Disturbing Thing About the Recent Clippers Scandal

Donald Sterling’s Views on Race May Not be the Most Disturbing Thing About the Recent Clippers Scandal

 By Jack O’Dowd

            In late April reports surfaced that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, had been taped making disparaging remarks about black people. The tape reflects a conversation had by Sterling and his girlfriend V. Stiviano. During the conversation Sterling relates to his girlfriend that he is upset that she is posting pictures of herself with black people onto her Instragram account. He says, “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.”[1] The black person who was the subject of the remark was none other than NBA great Magic Johnson.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Stiviano continued to goad Sterling into making more objectionable comments about Johnson. Stiviano told Sterling that Magic Johnson was someone she admired. Sterling responded “I think the fact that you admire [Magic] — I’ve known him well, and he should be admired — and I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately. And during your entire f***ing, your whole life, admire him — bring him here, feed him, f**k him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”[2]  Stiviano was apparently the subject of a lawsuit filed by Sterling’s wife, and she vowed revenge.[3] Regardless of Stiviano’s motivations, it is shocking that an owner in a league comprised almost entirely of black athletes could have these views about blacks.

In the wake of the statements numerous players voiced their strong disapproval of Sterling and his comments. For instance, LeBron James, probably the most famous current player in the NBA, said he may not have played had his team’s owner made those remarks and that “There’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA — there is no room for him.”[4] The players on Sterling’s Clippers team staged a silent protest by wearing their warm-up uniforms inside-out so that the Clippers logo was not visible.[5] Similar acts showing disapproval were made by other teams around the league.

The league took drastic measures against Sterling, strongly condemning his remarks. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, empowered by a provision in the league’s constitution giving the commissioner nearly unbridled authority, handed down a harsh punishment. The specific provision reads “Where a situation arises which is not covered in the Constitution and By-Laws, the Commissioner shall have the authority to make such decision, including the imposition of a penalty, as in his judgment shall be in the best interests of the Association.” Pursuant to this, Silver banned the embattled owner from the league, stripping Sterling of any authority or management relationship with his team and barring him from going to games. Further, Silver imposed a $2,500,000 fine, the maximum authorized by the NBA constitution.

Sterling, who still owns the team despite not being able to associate with the league in any way, may also be stripped of his ownership interest in the Clippers. Silver said he would urge the other owners to force a sale of the Clippers. The league’s constitution provides for such a sale if three-fourths of the other owners vote to kick out an owner.[6] More specifically, the NBA constitution provides that an owner may be forced to sell his team for engaging in conduct such as gambling on games, fixing games, and the like. Another provision says an ouster may result should an owner “fail or refuse to fulfill its contractual obligations . . . in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.” [7] Thus, it does not appear that the NBA’s constitution directly provides for a forced sale in this situation.

Because the NBA’s constitution, a contract between owners, does not seem to provide for a forced sale in this instance, I would be troubled should Sterling be forced to sell this sizable asset. What I really find troubling is that private conversations made in confidence to his girlfriend could be the reason that he would lose his basketball team. I am not alone in this view. Another NBA great Kareem Adbul-Jabbar wrote in an op-ed in Time Magazine, “Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way?”[8]

Further, regardless of whether he is forced to sell, I am troubled by the “mob-rule” mentality that characterizes the opposition to Sterling ownership. As mentioned earlier, notable NBA players, cultural figures, and even President Barack Obama have condemned Sterling, and many have called for him to divest his ownership interest in the Clippers. However, public outcry should not be enough to force someone to sell his property. If people want to boycott Clippers games, so be it. But forcing a sale of a multi-million dollar basketball team based on private comments coaxed out of an old man by his spiteful young girlfriend is bad policy. Sterling should reserve the right to “go down with his ship” and hold onto his team regardless of the financial consequences. The loss should be his to bear.

Finally, I think it would be unwise for owners to force a sale here. Who knows what skeletons they may have in their own closets? Who knows what future technologies may make those skeletons known to the public? It may be a dangerous precedent for the owners to decide that private statements, no matter how hateful or moronic, should be used against an owner to force him to sell his team. Rather, the owner should be free to hang onto the team and bear the financial cost. While I don’t think any owner would actually hold onto a team that is being boycotted, I believe he should at least have the right to.

 

[1] Kevin Conlon, NBA Team Owner in Hot Water Over Racist Comments Attributed to Him, CNN (April 27, 2014), http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/26/us/nba-team-owner-alleged-racist-remarks/

[2] Id.

[3] V. Stiviano, Rochelle Sterling legal battle at heart of scandal, LA Times (April 29, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-v-stiviano-rochelle-sterling-donald-lawsuit-20140429-story.html

[4] Shaundel Richardson, LeBron on Donald Sterling: “There’s no room for him” Sun Sentinel (April 27, 2014), http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2014-04-27/sports/fl-charlotte-bobcats-news-0427-20140426_1_lebron-james-donald-sterling-los-angeles-clippers.

[5] Bruce Golding, Clippers stage silent protest over Donald Sterling’s racist rant, New York Post (April 28, 2014)http://nypost.com/2014/04/28/clippers-stage-silent-protest-over-donald-sterlings-racist-rant/.

[6] Jeff Zilgitt, Can Donald Sterling best thorough NBA constitution?USA Today (May 2, 2014) http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2014/05/02/donald-sterling-lifetime-ban-constitution-bylaws-owners-los-angeles-clippers-forced-sale/8626843/.

[7] Id.

[8] Melissa Rohlin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offers a different perspective on Donald Sterling, LA Times (May 1, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-sn-kareem-abdul-jabbar-donald-sterling-20140501-story.html.

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