On April 29, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement asserting that Donald Sterling, manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, would be banned for life from any association with the Clippers or the NBA. The ban was instituted in response to a leaked recording of certain racist comments made by Sterling in private to his former mistress V. Stiviano, including a statement that he does not want her bringing black people to games. In addition to being banned for life, Sterling was also fined 2.5 million dollars – the maximum amount allotted in the NBA Constitution for similar offenses.
The comments by Sterling and the subsequent punishment from the NBA initiated a widespread conversation between political pundits, NBA fans and an extensive number of social media users on the role of First Amendment rights in private conversation. It also raised concerns regarding the extent to which Sterling’s comments could affect Clippers management and the irony of racially-motivated comments in a minority-dominated industry.
The heart of the issue at hand tends to err on the end of that first point: the role of private conversation in corporate interests. This issue is not a new one – it has been debated before Sterling and will be debated again. Instead, what complicates this issue is its impact on an organization like the NBA, which, while privately-owned, is excessively public in interest. It can come as no shock that, while Sterling’s intentions were never meant to be made public, an industry that relies so much on the entertainment dollars freely-spent by millions of Americans must work within its own best interests in lieu of a public backlash. When Sterling signed a contract that stipulated that his employment was contingent on a wider collective ownership’s approval, he signed away any right to fight an issue of this accord.
One can argue that Sterling is the victim of poor circumstance and tied hands, and that whether or not he intended his words to be public, the fact that they became so is worthy of condemnation. It has been made widely known that the comments Sterling made in relation to this particular incident were by no means his first of a similar nature. We live in a culture where racially- or otherwise-charged comments are not widely approved of or tolerated, and where one small recording can virally reach a plethora of stakeholders instantly. While First Amendment rights may legally absolve Sterling of repercussions for his statements, the same can not be said of a larger corporation’s interests.
And yet, it is difficult, in a small way, to not feel a small tinge of sadness for Sterling. Sure, his comments are repulsive and his attitude inexcusable, but in terms of managing his team, Sterling has not been accused of any wrong-doing. As of press time, there are no accusations against him from team members or other employees for racial discrimination or for making racially-charged statements in their presence the single exception is a case regarding the potential wrongful-termination of former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor – for which Sterling was legally found not guilty. While the team has made it publicly clear that they do not approve of the statements made to V. Stiviano, there has been no legal precedent to his stepping down.
Instead of acting in response to a fair system whether legal or internal, the NBA allowed the mass media pundits and social media inflammatories to serve as jury for Sterling’s case. Even though Sterling’s comments are atrocious, and the action taken against him is, at this point, irreversible. The ease with which a few key players on the wider interweb were able to complicate and ultimately decide a case like this puts a precedent on future controversies that any employee of a company even those not as public in nature as the NBA should be wary of.
Graphic Credit: EMMA JOHNSON/MANITOU MESSENGER