Donald Sterling is Banned, Reactions, and The Game

“OK, I’ll put it like this: I doubt if we’ll see another All-American basketball athlete who is a Rhodes Scholar” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I’m a few days late in piling on to the Donald Sterling story. For those who don’t know, here are the basics: Donald Sterling is the 80-something owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. He apparently has a history of racial, umm, “bias” (though I was unaware until this latest story broke). He was apparently recorded, while on the phone with his 20-something girlfriend (let that sink in for a second) saying the following (among other things):

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people … You can sleep with (black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it … and not to bring them to my games.”

(By the way, at issue was a picture that the young lady took with Magic Johnson … the horror.)

In response, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has banned Sterling from association with his team for life and fined him $2,500,000. My understanding is that Silver will need backing from 3/4 of the NBA owners to make good on the punishment (a number I can only imagine he has locked up). As you can imagine, any and everybody has chimed in with something to say. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first let’s consider the offense and the punishment.

Freedom of Speech …

Does anybody remember the Dixie Chicks? They were a well known female country trio (even I own a CD … they were good). In 2003, lead vocalist Natalie Maines criticized the impending US invasion of Iraq, and then president George W. Bush while on stage at a London concert. Their career ended about 12 hours later as just about every country station in the nation refused to air their songs anymore. It turns out that country music fans by and large supported the Iraq war (at the time, anyway – given the proximity to the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001). The country stations were left with a simple choice: cut the Dixie Chicks, or be boycotted by your fan base. It was a business decision … and a no-brainer.

After the blacklisting, Al Gore and other Lefties cried foul, indicating that this was some sort of violation of freedom of speech. They were wrong, of course. The free speech provision in the First Amendment applies to the ability of the government to infringe on your speech, not to the right of others in the free market economy to interact with you however they see fit – perhaps even in response to your speech. You are defended from government reprisals against your speech, you are not defended against all consequences of your speech.

The same holds true for Sterling. The NBA is not the federal government. It is a business. The bylaws of the league apparently allow for such punitive actions, and the NBA really had no choice. If all black players in the league decided to boycott (and they may well have) then the league would have ended.

Naturally there are differences with the Natalie Maines situation. Maines was speaking into a microphone in a public place. Sterling was having (he thought) a private conversation. Be that as it may, he said what he said and the impact of those statements threaten the very existence of the NBA. The league could not possibly have hidden behind “it was a private conversation” – either Sterling is gone, or the NBA would have been.

Kareem Weighs In …

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who apparently worked for the Clippers under Sterling after his NBA carrer) put together a nice piece on the the situation. It’s certainly worth a read. Two points that I took away from his article:

First, the girlfriend committed a crime by taping Sterling without his knowledge. I’m not sure about the statutes in California, but I suspect the releasing of the recording was a separate crime (though, at some point the girlfriend had denied involvement in the release). To my knowledge, she has not been charged with anything. Perhaps we tolerate felony offenses as long as they are done “for the greater good” …

Secondly, this information about Sterling is nothing new. In 2006 he was sued by the DoJ for housing discrimination, and is alleged to have said that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” Further, he was sued in 2009 for employment discrimination. This is just the public information. Folks who know Sterling can probably come up with much more damning material. Remember that in just moment – Sterling’s racism was was apparently already known.

Then the NAACP Weighs In …

Following the commissioners decision, the NAACP weighed in to indicate that a lifetime ban wasn’t enough. A longish blurb from the article:

But Sterling’s suspension isn’t enough, the groups said, calling for Silver to meet with them to ensure Sterling “remains an anomaly among the owners and executives in the league.”

“Sterling’s long-established pattern of bigotry and racist comments have not been a secret in the NBA,” the statement said. “Yet until now, they have been tolerated and met with a gentle hand and a blind eye.”

The groups want Silver to talk with them about diversifying the executive ranks of the NBA, similar to efforts in other sports.

OK, a few points. First, what exactly is the need to work on diversifying the ranks of NBA ownership? It’s a business. When teams become available for purchase (which happens very rarely) the NBA goes through a process of reviewing ownership bids. Is there any indication at all that this process is racially biased? If not, what exactly does the NAACP want? Should the NBA force some owners out (in addition to Sterling) and require that minorities be given ownership stakes? I suggest this is nonsense and has no place in a free society.

Furthermore, aren’t there minority owners in the NBA? Most notable are Bob Johnson and Michael Jordan (Charlotte Bobcats), and Jada Smith (Philadelphia 76ers). Jay-Z owns a minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Other past racial minorities with minority ownership stakes include Magic Johnson (Lakers), Isaiah Thomas (Raptors), David Robinson (Spurs), Bill Cosby (Nets), Usher (Cavaliers), and Edward Gardner (Bulls). If we just take the current three, that comes to 10% of the league (30 teams total). Given that African Americans comprise about 12.6% of the US population, I’d say things look about right.

But there’s something troubling in the NAACP position. It notes that Sterling’s bigotry is long established. Why then, if the pattern was long established, and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (hardly an investigative reporter) was aware of it, was the NAACP giving Sterling a lifetime achievement award?! (His second one, by the way – they gave him another in 2009.) Ahem … “Yet until now, they have been tolerated and met with a gentle hand and a blind eye.”

Perhaps the NAACP is willing to overlook racial bigotry as long as the offender is duly donating money to NAACP-backed causes (including the NAACP itself), unless there is a blowup so big that the NAACP sees an opportunity to try and press its advantage and get something more out of the deal. The words “shakedown artists” come to mind.

I Would Have Given a Slightly Different Punishment …

I think Silver missed slightly with the punishment. I’m reminded here of the Penn State University football punishments handed out in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Instead of giving out four years of reduced scholarships (and some fines), I felt the NCAA should have given PSU a one-year death penalty. This was not, after all, a recruiting issue. School administrators had turned a blind eye to child rape in order to defend the football program. They needed a timeout. One year ban, and after that no further punishment.

In the Sterling case, I think the punishment would have served its purpose better without the $2.5 million fine. The money is inconsequential. It’s attachment to this issue subconsciously distracts from the thrust of the primary punishment – the lifetime ban. Everybody knows that fine is inconsequential. It exists only as punishment, but not as justice (or whatever the approximation of justice is in the business sense).

Grandmama Has Thoughts Too … I Think

Former NBA player Larry Johnson (Grandmama) also chimed in. The article here notes that “Former Knicks’ Great Response to NBA Race Scandal.” I double checked. They did mean Larry Johnson when they referenced a “Knicks great” … umm, playing fast and loose with the definition of greatness, aren’t we? Johnson was a very good player, but five years with the Hornets, followed by five with the Knicks – most of which saw him greatly diminished due to injuries – hardly makes one a great player.

Anyway, “LJ” apparently wants a black-only league. He made his announcment with the following tweet. (Note I usually put sic erat scriptum references for bad grammar … but there was just too much to do here. So consider the whole tweet as sic.)

“Black people your Focusing on the wrong thing. We should be focusing on having our own, Own team own League! To For Self!!”

I suspect that a majority of NBA owners do not agree with Sterling, just as I suspect a majority of black players do not want to go back to “Negro League” days. But, LJ has a history of making everything about race.

My bigger question is this: what does “To For Self” mean? No, seriously, I want to know. I can’t even imagine what he was going for. Is this the new amalgam of FUBU (For Us By Us)? If anyone has the answer, please let me know. I’m thinking about making it my new catch phrase.

Who Makes the Game?

Sterling had more to say in that “private” conversation. When confronted by his girlfriend about the fact that all his players are black, he launched into plantation-speak:

“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have — Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

First, the notion of “giving” the players anything is absurd. They are well worth it in the revenue they generate. Second, there is this out of time notion of “who makes the game”. There was a time, perhaps 40 years ago, when the NBA was hardly as lucrative as it is now. There was a time when it took owners with guts and a willingness to risk big dollars to make this thing work. Those days are long gone. Today the players make the game. A simple thought experiment demonstrates the point.

Suppose all NBA players on all 30 teams walked out tomorrow. A general strike. Could we find replacements? Sure, but the quality of the game would drop significantly. The NBA would be a somewhere between a European professional league and the NBA developmental league. Would fan support wane? Oh yeah. Revenues would slide dramatically.

Now turn it around. What if all 30 owners (or ownership groups) walked away. Could we find 30 new owners? Sure. More of them would have to be conglomerates, but we could find the capital to repurchase the teams and support the existing contract structure. Would the quality of the game dip? Nope. I mean, perhaps there are some visionary owners who make things better, but I suggest we’d hardly notice. Sterling and the rest are replaceable. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are not.

Skeletons and Thought Police …

Let me stipulate that I find Sterling’s bigotry offensive. Further, I have no problem with the NBA’s lifetime ban – it was Sterling or the league (and, I prefer to keep the NBA).

That said, there is a small chance that this precedent opens the door for invasive probing of skeletons in the closet. The system grinds to a halt of we have to vet every owner to make sure they have, and have always had proper thoughts regarding diversity.

On that note, a number of commentaries have pointed out that other owners may now be worried about skeletons in their closets, or phone conversations they hope were not recorded. Heck, maybe Sterling will even play dirty and try to dig up past misbehaviors before the official removal vote. (People worth a reported $1,900,000,000 can afford to play dirty.)

I suspect it will all come off according to script and we’ll go back to basketball as usual. But if the thought police do attempt a takeover, we can look back to the Donald Sterling incident as the tipping point.

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