Yesterday NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling would be fined $2.5 million and banned for life from the Clippers organization and the NBA for racist remarks he made to his girlfriend against black people. Most fans and owners have reacted positively and are pleased that the NBA Commissioner has given the owner such a harsh sentence. Others believe that the punishment does not fit the crime and that Sterling deserved more leniency. My first reaction was one of relief, because I do not believe that there is any such room for racism in the NBA. However, after thinking it through I decided to consider why I came to such a conclusion. Was Sterling’s sentence just? Doesn’t an NBA owner have first amendment rights? After consideration I came to the same conclusion that the NBA was justified in giving Sterling the sentence that he received.
In order to understand the first amendment in business one must first understand law. Business law does not work the same way as criminal law. Donald Sterling was never in peril of incarceration, neither was he in peril of receiving a misdemeanor or a felony. He will never be convicted for racism in this circumstance. Business law looks at the civil aspect of the law and the repercussions that come from breaches of contracts and confidence. Sterling violated trust within the Clippers organization and the NBA.
Think of it this way. Imagine that you bought a house that belonged to a homeowners association. You know before purchasing the house that there are rules that must be obeyed in order to maintain your home. The consequences of not obeying the association rules is that you may receive a fine, or if the violation is grievous enough, you may be kicked out of the association and be forced to sell your home. One rule in many homeowner associations is that lawnmowers and broken appliances [dishwashers, washers, dryers, etc.] are not allowed on the front lawn. In this association you can keep all the lawnmowers and broken appliances that you want on the inside of your home, but once you bring it outside you are subject to repercussions from the association. The reason why associations make this specific rule is that junk makes the neighborhood look trashy and it actually devalues the other homes in the neighborhood. Other homeowners will take a financial hit if a few people choose to disregard HOA rules.
The NBA works no differently. Figuratively Donald Sterling breached his contract when he let his junk trickle from the inside of his home to the front yard. He is responsible for his junk. The junk that Sterling allowed on the floor of an NBA game from his mouth, however, was far more toxic than an old dishwasher in the front lawn. A comment like his could destroy the entire Clippers organization. Imagine if Donald Sterling was the Clippers owner next year? What black person would sign a contract with him? What fan would attend his game? What team would want to play against his? What sponsor would renew their contract? Donald Sterling is a monetary liability to the NBA. The NBA Commissioner had little choice but to ban him from basketball, and he made the right choice.
Secondly, he violated the code of morality. Donald Sterling could have gotten away with having uttered a racist remark. He was not just banned for saying something racist, but it was how he said it and to which audience. In the sound bite he first undermined Magic Johnson for being black. This tells you something about his character. Xenophobes dislike people from a certain demographic, but they often give exceptions to exceptional people. Magic Johnson did more for basketball in the city of L.A. than Donald Sterling ever did. He was the all-time leader in assists, a proficient scorer, the only man ever to play all five positions on an NBA court, and he won five NBA championships and three Most Valuable Player awards. In addition, he is a respectable person and a gentleman.
I am sure that Donald Sterling’s girlfriend was euphoric when she scored a picture with the famed basketball player. When Sterling commanded her to take the picture off Instagram it demonstrated his lack of respect for black people. I wonder if he would have had the same reaction if she posted a picture of herself with the President of the United States. Magic Johnson is such a high-profile person that if Sterling has no respect for him, I could not imagine how he feels about the other black people on his team. Sterling later went on to say that he did not want his girlfriend to associate herself with any black people at games or in public in order to create an image that she is not like other black people. She is elevated to the status of white, and therefore only associates with other whites.
This mentality is particularly sensitive in today’s world because in 2014 America is not far removed from the Civil Rights era, Jim Crow laws, and even slavery. America was a slave nation for longer than it has been a free nation. For some, old mentalities take generations to break. Black slavery and the injustice that followed emancipation is one of the two greatest moral thorns in American history (the other being the treatment of Native Americans). The wounds inflicted on blacks are still fresh. The NBA has an imperative to rid itself of hatred because it is morally right. Sterling’s actions are even more intensified because a majority of NBA players affiliate themselves as black. Real estate agents have their licenses taken away for steering black people into black neighborhoods. It was morally impermissible for Sterling to steer his girlfriend to a certain clique or racial group to socialize or give the appearance of social superiority.
For most people $2.5 million is more money than they could imagine. It is the maximum fine that the NBA Commissioner can penalize an owner. Was an indiscrete remark worth $2.5 million? For those who oppose Sterling’s sentence, this is where they may have their biggest arguing point. They say that the NBA wants to make a whipping boy of Donald Sterling. I say it is irrelevant. The NBA does not own a whip large enough to punish or even break the skin of Donald Sterling. He will sell the Clippers organization for about $750 million, which is a lot more than the $12 million that he bought it for. At 81 years old he will take his $2.5 billion and enjoy the rest of his short life doing whatever he does. I wish him the best and hope that before he departs from this world that he comes to a full realization of the life that he has lived.
Brian King, Mesa, AZ