Mob Rule in the NBA

Midst the near universal acclaim for NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to suspend Donald Sterling “for life” for the racist comments attributed to him in a taped conversation which went viral, it has been overlooked, or at least disregarded, that Sterling’s comments were made in a conversation intended to be private occurring several months ago to a girlfriend who may have been trying to set him up. The taping, without Sterling’s consent, was illegal under California law. You can be sure that at TMZ Sports, the smut-dispensing web site which broke the story, they were exchanging high fives at the water cooler when Silver announced The Decision II.

In the absence of social media, the firestorm which greeted the disclosure of Sterling’s comments last Saturday would have amounted to little more than a campfire. A close reading of Sterling’s comments reveals that they made little sense. Were they the calculated expression of a dedicated racist’s antipathy to blacks, or were they merely the rantings of a delusional octogenarian to an opportunistic ex-lover with an ax to grind? Did GF Vi Stiviano plan to catch Sterling on tape? Did she sell the tape to TMZ? Silver didn’t wait to find the answers before hitting Sterling with the nuclear option.

There were sound reasons for Silver’s rush to judgment, but none of them had to do with fairness. You can find more offensive language than Sterling’s in any country club steam room or Thursday night poker game. Sterling has been a rogue owner for 33 years, combining enough negative personality traits to make Charles Manson blush; but is he any worse a person than Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert (abusive mortgage loan practices), Knicks owner James Dolan (gross incompetence, permitted executive harassment and sexual exploitation), or the Maloof brothers, who ran the Sacramento franchise to the ground?

It’s not as if Sterling was broadcasting his animosity towards blacks in a public forum. In fact, his public face was to be supportive of blacks. He retained Elgin Baylor as his GM for 23 years, hired Doc Rivers as coach, and was the recipient of an NAACP lifetime achievement award for (gulp) humanitarianism. Can you punish a man for his private thoughts? Should we not consider that an 80 year old man who grew up when anti-semitism was rampant and blacks would not be served at lunch counters may lack the sensitivity to be discreet in the age of social media?

Indeed, under the collective bargaining agreement, NBA players may be better protected from disproportionate punishment for indiscretions than was owner Sterling. Kobe Bryant made a public slur against gays, and received a mere slap in the wrist. How many NBA players have committed felonies, failed to make paternity payments, or been charged with DWI’s, and resumed their careers with little or no interruption?

No, Silver trumped any concerns about fairness to preserve league stability, retain sponsorships, and return attention to the playoffs, all of which were in jeopardy after the defections of several Clipper sponsors and very real player threats to walk off the court unless Sterling was severely punished.

Mark Jackson, Golden State coach, encouraged his team not to play last night if the punishment was not sufficient. So many current and former NBA stars chimed that “there was no room for Sterling in the NBA,” you’d think they’d worked in hotel management. The Players Association engaged Sacramento mayor and former NBA great Kevin Johnson to be its lead spokesman on the matter, and Johnson did not miss a sound bite. He appeared before a group which included Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Steve Nash, and other dignitaries to applaud Silver’s decision.

But it took a while for the players to rally around Sterling’s punishment. Only after Silver announced that he would hold a press conference on the Sterling matter did the players bring forth the heavy artillery. Until then, they were content to turn their shirts inside out in protest. From Shaq to JR Smith, the Twitter network buzzed with kudos to Silver for showing Sterling the door. By extending the punishment from the anticipated “indefinite suspension” to “suspension for life,” Silver quieted the crowd and diffused the situation.

While Silver’s power to suspend Sterling for statements “prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of the league” is clear, he may be on shakier grounds when he attempts to drum up the required three-fourths of owners’ support for a termination of Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers. If widespread scorn over a misdeed or misstatement is the measure for expulsion, rather than the character of the conduct , some of the more rebellious owners may envision themselves in Sterling’s place. Many Knicks fans, for sure, would have voted to terminate Dolan’s Knicks ownership after the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade.

Silver has been hailed for making a decision consistent with the “cultural diversity“ of the NBA. And cultural diversity is a good thing. But when in obeisance to cultural diversity, a man’s right to be comfortable with his own thoughts is trampled by a social media stampede, that’s a bad thing.


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