THE PROFESSOR: MUCH ADO ABOUT DONALD STERLING

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Updated: June 24, 2014
sterling featured

For his recent racist remarks and other past displays of “bad behavior,” LA Clipper owner, Donald Sterling, has been banned from the league and is being forced to sell his team. In the jury of media-driven public opinion, Sterling is guilty as charged and his punishment is both appropriate and long overdue. Signs are that the litigiously inclined Sterling will not go down without a legal fight so the next stage in this drama will likely play out in the courts. The Sterling case has me thinking about basic liberties, justice, double standards, hypocrisy and the challenges raised by a conflict between principle and action.

As a firm believer in free speech and the right of privacy, I must admit to being initially conflicted by the summary judgment and punishment of Sterling. After all, how in America can someone be punished for what they say, however odious, in private? Upon further reflection on the Sterling’s shameful business practices as a slumlord, and his numerous reported past displays of racist and misogynist behavior, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is indeed unworthy of NBA ownership. I support the Adam Silver decision to “disenfranchise” Sterling as an action that promotes the collective good of the league.

Nevertheless, I remain troubled by the whole affair. If Sterling is a racist and misogynist, he certainly is not alone among owners, front offices, players and fans of professional sport teams, not to mention the wider American public. To be sure, these evils run much broader and deeper than Donald Sterling. The hypocrisy in much of the righteous condemnation of Sterling is hard to stomach. Many need to look in the mirror.

NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award?

NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award?

And, if Sterling has been known to be such a monster for so long, how could he have lasted over 30 years as an NBA owner?   If Silver cites a “pattern of behavior” as the reason for his expulsion, why only now has the NBA taken action? Where was David Stern while all the bad behavior was going on? And if Sterling was a well-known evil, why did the highly regarded Doc Rivers agree to coach the team and why did superstar, Chris Paul, re-sign a contract? Why did the NAACP plan to give Sterling a second Lifetime Achievement Award? I remain baffled as to how so many people who dealt with Sterling could have been so clueless about his pattern of bad behavior. Were they simply ignorant or did the lure of greenbacks obscure their judgment? I’ll let you answer that.

And what about other professional sport owners whose actions are harmful to the collective good of their respective leagues? Take Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, for example. Isn’t Snyder’s unwillingness to change the name of the Washington Redskins, a name clearly offensive to a significant segment of the American population, an affront to the NFL? Is he a racist, or just a buffoon? Why hasn’t Roger Goodell and NFL owners pressed Snyder to get him to change the name? Are NFL heads in the sand like those of the NBA commissioner and owners in the face of Sterling’s transgressions? Perhaps they’re simply worried about calling attention to their own questionable conduct? Whatever the reason, their silence on the matter is deplorable.

daniel snyder redskins

If the NFL reluctance is just another example of a “money thing,” this may change. Last Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office eliminating the Redskins federal trademark registration could deal a financial blow to not only the Redskins, but to all NFL owners since revenue from licensed merchandise is shared by all 32 NFL teams. If the ruling withstands appeal, certain to be filed by the Redskins, counterfeiters could start selling merchandize with the Redskin logo, thus grabbing cash that would have otherwise gone into the NFL revenue pot. This prospect has transformed the case from a moral to a financial issue, a change more likely, one would think, to draw greater attention from NFL owners.

If the Sterling legal challenge proceeds through the court system, the case could draw on for a long time. This means he could still be the legal owner when the 2014-2015 season starts. There are a number of questions to ponder if Sterling remains in the picture. Will the NBA make Clipper players unrestricted free agents? Will Clipper players demand trades or refuse to play? Will Clipper fans boycott games? How will other teams respond? I wonder if the high-minded people who have talked a good anti-racism game throughout the Sterling episode will walk the walk when it comes down to it.   Will NBA” shareholders” put principle ahead of profit? Will fans prioritize principle over loyalty? Or, will the episode be quickly forgotten?

I’m sorry to say that I remain skeptical the morally righteous Sterling bashers will follow principle. As usual there will be a great deal of indignant rhetoric and self-congratulatory outrage, but in the end money and fan loyalty will likely prevail. Sterling will be dismissed as a “bad apple,” and business will continue as usual; that is, until the next slip of the tongue by a franchise owner reaches the social media.

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