Was the NBA Right to Punish Donald Sterling So Severely?

First off, let’s get this out of the way. What Donald Sterling said was really lame. It was racist, for sure. And it was puzzling in its irrationality and plain ignorance. There is really no way to defend Sterling’s comments, and I have no desire to defend them.

That said, Donald Sterling made his comments in a private conversation with his mistress/girlfriend. He was not speaking publicly as a representative of the NBA. He wasn’t even speaking as a representative of the LA Clippers. He was speaking off the cuff to his girlfriend, and his comments were leaked. Do the LA Clippers’ players have a right to disagree with his opinion? Sure. Do they have a right to hate Donald Sterling? Yeah. But should Sterling’s property be forcibly auctioned off? Eh.

The NBA is a private, voluntary association. Sterling’s views on race don’t necessarily have anything to do with his ownership of the Clippers or his performance of his duties. But his players didn’t like what he said, and the NBA didn’t either. So NBA commissioner Adam Silver did what he thought he had to in order to avert a PR disaster.

He banned Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, fined him 2.5 million dollars, and said the NBA would “help” him sell his team. Is this right? Was it too severe? Was it not severe enough?

Well, the real question is this: what civil laws or NBA by-laws did Donald Sterling violate? His comments are protected under most free speech laws, so there is no question really that he has a right to his (stupid) opinions.

And the NBA by-laws are also very unclear on this point. Owners can be banned from the NBA for fixing games and like offenses, but there really isn’t any precedent for coming down on an owner for private racist comments.

Really, this action by the NBA reflects a cultural phenomenon. The NBA couldn’t do nothing without seeming like they endorsed Sterling’s perspective. Donald Sterling just wouldn’t have been able to continue as an owner of this team. It would hurt the NBA and the LA Clippers if he stayed on with impunity. So what could be done?

The right thing to do may have looked a little different. But it would have been hard, and it would have required more nuance than most people can muster or appreciate. The NBA probably should have come out with a statement saying that they in no way endorsed Sterling’s perspective. Then they should have said that they encouraged Sterling to sell the team. But other than that, fining him or banning him for life is not in line with the NBA’s by-laws, and it seems like an emotional PR reaction.

The fact is that Sterling would have eventually sold the team. He wouldn’t really have had a choice. His team doesn’t want to play for him. Sponsors don’t want to endorse the team. Everyone is distancing themselves from the racist toxin that has polluted the LA Clippers in the form of ugly Donald Sterling. So, one way or the other, Sterling was getting banned. But it would have been better if the NBA had encouraged voluntary actions rather than setting a precedent for public sanctions against private comments.

All in all, it should be obvious by now that racism, even perceived racism, is a PR nightmare. Sterling should have known this, and he should have kept his opinions to himself. Ultimately, the NBA sanctions are not a violation of his free speech. They are the retributions of a private organization wisely protecting its financial assets from harm. If only Sterling had the same presence of mind.