By banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, league commissioner Adam Silver adopted a tone toward racism that the entire nation can follow.
This substantial penalty matches the crime. Sterling’s repugnant actions were unforgivable. In a taped conversation released by the celebrity news website TMZ, he pleaded with his mistress not to bring black people to his basketball games. When she logically responded with puzzlement, he, in turn, reacted with confusion, as if his request were perfectly reasonable. Someone exhibiting such entrenched bigotry is manifestly unqualified to own and operate a NBA team.
In a nationally televised press conference, Silver, visibly outraged, announced the lifetime ban, along with other maximum penalties. The NBA commissioner fined Sterling $2.5 million, and announced intentions to seek the 3/4 vote necessary from other team owners to force a sale of the Clippers. These are unprecedented punishments in American sports— the impetus for which is worthy of due consideration.
Sterling’s statements were not expressed publicly, but in a private setting (reportedly back in September) during an intimate argument with a former companion. Somehow, the conversation was recorded — with or without his knowledge — and then provided to TMZ. Also noteworthy is that the ex-girlfriend on tape is currently being sued by the Sterling family for extortion.
It could be argued that the Clippers owner was victim of both blackmail and a violation of his freedom of speech. As such, this case sets odd precedent. Do all team owners now need to watch what they say in private, lest a secret recording surface and doom their businesses? It’s a gray area, and Silver had to make a choice. Should he be lenient in light of questionable circumstances surrounding the tape? Or take a hard stance on behalf of players, owners and fans who were horrified by this bald racism? Given what was at stake, the commissioner made right decisions.
His verdict allows the NBA — and the country — to turn a corner in the ongoing national struggle against racism. Had he been soft on Sterling, it could have helped reinforce a despicable American stereotype: That of the rich, bigoted white man “triumphing” over minorities. Instead, Silver scored a landmark victory for equality and racial relations by upholding a zero-tolerance policy regarding blatant bigotry in his league. Players reportedly were prepared to boycott games if Sterling had gotten off easy. However, Silver demonstrated that he represents not just the wealthy controlling parties of the organization, but all NBA members, from the basketball superstars down to the part-timers who work concession stands.
Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from this ugly episode was how quickly and resoundingly Sterling was condemned across the country. Even people who do not follow basketball took to social media to express disgust with his comments. America has come a long way since days of slavery and segregation, when racial equality remained a distant dream. There is further to go. But by erring on the side of stern justice against bigotry, Silver has guided the nation in its next step toward a future that is less encumbered by odious impediments of racism.