Just who IS listening?

I’m always suspicious when everyone stands four-square against something or, in this case, for it. You have to admit, it’s pretty difficult to find anybody unwilling to dance on Donald Sterling’s grave these days. The Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, banned from the NBA for life for incendiary racist comments, enjoys about the same level of popularity here in America as Osama bin Laden did for the first decade of the century. And his ignominy is well deserved. (Incidentally, don’t think I don’t realize that there are many Americans who share Mr. Sterling’s views but who, in the light of public opinion, have opted for a somewhat lower profile.)

I have no problem with his banishment or his disgrace—to allow him to manage people of any color is a travesty—but I do have a problem with how this came about, as well as how conciliatory the NBA owners had been toward Sterling throughout his twenty-nine year tenure as owner of the team. (He bought the then San Diego Clippers and moved them to Los Angeles in 1984.) During that span he has made no secret of his disparaging views of black people. As recently as 2009 he was sued by former NBA great Elgin Baylor for age and race discrimination, Baylor claiming that the owner ran the team with a “Southern plantation-type structure.” Baylor lost the suit. Sterling continued on as owner. If there was any NBA mortification, it was feeble and muted. That same year Sterling settled a housing-discrimination suit brought by the Justice Department on behalf of African-Americans, Latinos, and families with children. Sterling paid out $2.76 million to settle—there’s no indication that his attitude changed as a result. Nor did the NBA’s.

Now there’s a new commissioner—Adam Silver has replaced David Stern—and the new sheriff in town is patrolling the streets with a little less flexibility. He has banned Sterling for life and pretty much threatened the other owners to follow that lead and force Sterling to sell the Clippers. And if this were some kind of fairy tale, Sterling would admit his flaws, wear the scarlet R around his neck, and sell Oprah his basketball team. (She, apparently, has expressed interest.) But this isn’t a fairy tale, and Donald Sterling doesn’t seem the kind of man to go gently into that good oblivion; and although I can’t abide any of his beliefs, I can agree that, ironically, his rights have been violated. Not civil rights—that would make it more ironic, but his Constitutional rights. In the eyes of that document—yes, the one gun owners are always brandishing—he has a right to express himself in a private conversation, no matter how offensive his words might be. He wasn’t plotting a government overthrow or a terrorist attack—he was just being ignorant. How many of us, in private conversations, have said things we don’t necessarily want to read in the N.Y. Times, or hear repeated by Brian Williams on the NBC Evening News? Don’t bother raising your hands—I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

There is no place for Donald Sterling’s bigotry in a progressive society, one that intends to move forward toward the betterment of everyone’s lives. But I don’t think there’s room for phone dialogues to become public discourse which are then used as philosophical proclamations in order to relieve someone of his position. It’s offensive in its own right; worse, it’s gutless in light of the NBA’s prior knowledge of Sterling’s actions and willingness to turn a blind eye.

I want Sterling gone. I want him to unload the team. I want his attitudes to go away. But I want billion-dollar industries like the NBA to address bigotry because they should, not because a stray conversation leaked to the public made it easier to do so. And I want to feel free to carry on a private conversation, no matter how stupid or politically incorrect, in a country that purportedly guarantees that right.

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