“Did you see the press conference?” Dan asked me.
“Oh yeah, I saw it,” I replied, my eyes lighting up.
“So, what did you think?”
I was hoping he would ask my opinion of the day’s earlier announcement that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA after making racist comments.
And, like a good husband, he did. Not just because he knows I love to talk about current events, but also because this one holds special interest to me, as a journalist and lifelong sports fan. As you may have heard, in addition to barring Sterling from games, practices, and any other basketball-related events, and fining him $2.5 million, the league said it intends to force him to sell the team.
In the ensuing media snowstorm, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was praised by everyone from Magic Johnson to Oprah for taking swift and appropriate action. Outlets like ESPN repeatedly called it a “slam dunk” (because who can resist a good pun?). And why not? You have the villain, the hero, and the punishment, which, everyone seems to agree, fits the crime.
It all seems very cut and dry — but it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, I found Sterling’s comments to be deplorable. I believe that although it’s his right to voice those sentiments — as offensive as they may be — it’s entirely inappropriate and downright wrong for the face of an organization to hold and express those views.
That being said, I have a problem with the way in which his comments were brought to light. Sterling wasn’t making a public statement — he was in a private setting, and was being recorded without his knowledge.
To me, that’s an issue. Yesterday, I heard one of the talking heads on sports radio say that it doesn’t matter how his words became public. I disagree. I believe that as journalists, we have to put aside our feelings toward Sterling and consider the fact that the manner in which he was recorded was illegal and unethical. Of course I don’t expect websites like TMZ to follow any sort of rules or guidelines (which would be hard to do when your main objective is to stalk celebrities). I do, however, expect some members of the media to have the guts to point out the elephant in the room and say that, yes, what he did was wrong, but we have to consider all of the facts.
One fact is that Sterling had a terrible track record — and everyone knew about it. According to the NY Daily News, he “paid massive fines into the millions of dollars when he was found to have engaged in discriminatory practices against minorities in his Los Angeles housing properties.” Not only that, but former Clipper executive Elgin Baylor, who ran basketball operations for 22 seasons under Sterling, filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the team.
The guy had a checkered past, but no one seemed to care until an alleged former girlfriend (who is not a journalist) caught him making hateful remarks while in his home, then fired the audio off to TMZ.
If indeed he is forced to sell the team based on that recording, this would set a heck of a precedent. Another NBA team owner, Mark Cuban, expressed a similar opinion, telling the Associated Press, “What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position. But at the same time, that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”
He went on to say, “regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, 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. I don’t want to be part of that.”
A little dramatic? Perhaps, but, for the second time in one of my columns, I agree with Cuban. We are living in a world where news travels in milliseconds and privacy is nonexistent. Maybe it’s time for high-profile organizations to implement policies that reflect the growth of social media and make it clear that comments made or actions taken in a private setting will be punished to the fullest extent.
But until then, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to slide down the slippery slope.