What Exactly Was Donald Sterling’s Offense?
By Chuck Klosterman
We can probably agree that the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made offensive comments. But was his offense thinking racist thoughts? Or saying them out loud? Had he not been recorded, Sterling would have received a lifetime achievement award from the N.A.A.C.P. The victim of his remarks was himself: Sterling managed to (further) trash his own reputation. No one else was really injured. Is purity of thought the expectation for team owners? MARK ALEXANDER, ST. LOUIS
Many have asked if the N.B.A. is ethically justified in its effort to force Sterling to sell his ownership stake in the Clippers. It is. Sports franchises can’t be viewed as autonomous private businesses, because they don’t operate in that way. The league as a whole is the business, composed of 30 satellite offices in various cities. The teams are interconnected and some revenue is shared; this is why most players can be traded against their will, and rookie salaries can be capped. Purchasing an N.B.A. team is similar to buying a McDonald’s franchise. And if a specific McDonald’s outlet decided to have its counter employees wear Ku Klux Klan robes, few would disagree with corporate if it removed the proprietor of that store.
Your question, however, is harder (and it has scarcely been asked throughout this whole fiasco): Is Sterling losing his franchise because of what he said, or because of what he believes?
Because of Sterling’s history of suspected racism (as a landlord, he has been sued twice for housing discrimination, and though he denied wrongdoing, settled both cases out of court) and the bizarre contradictions on the tape itself (speaking to a female acquaintance, Sterling says he does not want her bringing black people to Clippers games, despite employing a black coach and a predominantly black roster), the decision to oust him feels easy. But what if the details were more obscured? Imagine if, six months ago, someone had raised the hypothetical notion of forcibly stripping a sports franchise from a longtime owner because a private conversation had been surreptitiously recorded. Few would champion such a premise. Yet Sterling’s punishment received almost universal support. Why? It was not simply what he said, nor simply what he believes — it was the intractable collision of those two things.
The expectation of an N.B.A. owner is not “purity of thought.” Sterling was perceived to be racist for years. But perception isn’t enough. You can’t penalize a person based on what you believe exists inside his mind. It must spill into the world. And this audiotape did exactly that. Had it been another owner’s voice on the tape — say, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks — there still would have been questions over the sentiment’s context. It would have seemed completely out of step with everything we know about Cuban. But with Sterling, there was no such incongruity. His words validated the longstanding perception of his worldview, and that made both problems nonnegotiable.