This week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver forcefully announced that his sport would not countenance a hateful racist. He banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life and “will urge the board of governors to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team.” For Sterling to finally get his comeuppance, to feel the wrath of public opprobrium, and to lose his prime asset seems just. For the NBA, which was engaged in a decades-long battle with its longest-tenured, and worst, owner, this was a perfect opportunity to act swiftly and harshly.
Yet one has this niggling feeling that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has a point when he says, “If we’re taking something somebody said in their home and we’re trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape, or form, that’s not the United States of America.”
Removing Sterling as an owner will require a three-quarters majority vote of NBA owners. In his press conference, Silver said he expects he’ll have enough votes to oust Sterling. It’s unclear if Cuban will ultimately be one of those anti-Sterling voters — after the press conference, the Dallas owner tweeted, “I agree 100% with Commissioner Silver’s findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling.” But it’s likely that Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski is correct when he writes, “There isn’t a franchise that could withstand public backlash of failing to vote with Adam Silver on Donald Sterling’s ouster.”
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine many owners willing to align themselves with Sterling, even if they were to portray their “no” votes not as an endorsement of the Clippers owner, but as a criticism of the process.
The process, however, does raise some troubling issues. A private citizen whose private thoughts were audiotaped (perhaps illegally) has been told he can no longer own his private property because of the thoughts that were revealed on that tape. These thoughts were loathsome to be sure, but didn’t advocate anything illegal and didn’t call for any violent or even literally hurtful actions.
To say that Sterling, with his long history of racism, sexism, parsimony and obstreperousness, was a thorn in the side of the NBA is to do a disservice to thorns, which are sharp, strong and affixed to a living thing. Sterling is a desiccated relic who squeezed every drop of profit out of his basketball team while caring nothing for his fans or employees. Having been lucky enough to buy the team for a pittance in the days when an NBA team was seen as no wiser an investment than a yacht, Sterling gamed the system by being as cheap as possible while the league got richer around him.
His business dealings away from the NBA, which has unions and a salary floor, were worse, as he was famously fined millions of dollars for discriminatory housing practices. That should have been the flashpoint of a conflagration. But it wasn’t. It took an audiotape of Sterling telling his mistress that he didn’t want her seen with black people (though she reportedly is black and Mexican) to fully roast the 80-year-old.
I would argue that refusing to rent to black and Hispanic families is a far worse societal ill than decrying the presence of Magic Johnson on the Instagram account of your girlfriend. The NBA apparently didn’t think so, having never raised any kind of public ruckus about Sterling’s shameful, well-established behavior. It’s telling that Clippers coach Doc Rivers claims he “didn’t know a lot about” Sterling’s racism before he accepted his current position.
A swift beheading by the commissioner robs players and fans of a chance to foment justice on their own. Silver did a favor to the Clippers players who didn’t want to be put in the uncomfortable position of having to actually do anything beyond the symbolic in opposition to Sterling’s racism. Clippers fans, too, can continue to comfort themselves by explaining that they support their favorite players wearing their favorite jerseys, not the man who actually pays the players and supplies the jerseys. How great would it have been if there were a nationwide backlash against the Clippers, which might have not only convinced Sterling to sell, but actually depressed the value of the brand?
In accepting plaudits for serving as an exacting executioner, Silver also sidesteps the fact that his office — led by David Stern with Silver as his longtime No. 2 — was for years an institutional enabler. The lesson of Donald Sterling seems to extend no further than Sterling himself, and stretches no earlier than the revelations of the past week.
In fact, injustice existed longitudinally and latitudinally, with the damage done by the NBA’s inaction reaching beyond that league’s offices. If the NBA had punished Sterling a long time ago, would Major League Baseball have approved Astros owner Jim Crane, despite his company having paid a multimillion-dollar settlement for allegedly having engaged in discriminatory behavior?
In his remarks before the Silver decision, Mark Cuban went on to say that in America people are allowed to be morons. That’s true, and proved every day in the halls of Congress, on cable television and on barstools everywhere. This was a rare instance, though, where the anti-moron message could have been an authentic, populist one. Donald Sterling shouldn’t own the Clippers. But Cuban is right: The NBA shouldn’t divest the moron of his team.
Mike Pesca is the host of Slate’s upcoming daily podcast. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR. This column appeared on Slate.com, an online current affairs and culture magazine owned by The Washington Post.