Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Donald Sterling and the right to be wrong
As new sherriffs in town go, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver doesn't exactly cut the same figure as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but frontier justice was never so decisively dispensed as it was yesterday when Silver banned LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined Sterling 2.5 million dollars. Even in the wild west, the outlaws sometimes got a fair trial or at least the courtesy of a showdown at high noon, but Sterling fell under the "wanted dead or alive" category, and Silver delivered his still-warm carcass posthaste.
The racist recording attributed to Sterling and leaked by TMZ caused an unprecedented mainstream and social media uproar, and little wonder. The voice and comments alleged to be Sterling's depict a despicable and deeply offensive attitude towards minorities in general and specifically African Americans - an attitude more befitting a 19th century slave owner than a franchise owner in a sport dominated by black athletes. Demands for Sterling's immediate and permanent expulsion from the NBA were pretty much universal, and Silver delivered Sterling's head on a platter.
But justice and the law don't always intersect. While there are laws against discrimination in America, there's no law against being a bigot. Free speech trumps hate speech. Even if Sterling made hateful comments, his right to do so is protected by the U.S. Constitution. The methods used by an opportunistic gold digger 50 years his junior to set him up were also suspect and outside the bounds of common decency, if not unlawful.
The are several lessons to be learned here, and that you can't be racist without risking serious consequences is only one of them. We've also learned that there's currency in baiting someone in what they believe is a private conversation, that the internet paparazzi has been embraced as a go-to source for credible news, and that social media wields a disproportionately powerful influence on society's decision-makers. NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabaar says it here with greater authority and credibility than I could ever muster.
There's no excuse for what Donald Sterling said, and he got what was coming to him. But woe betide us all when entrapment, mob mentality and summary justice become acceptable substitutes for due process. The best weapon to use against someone like Sterling is the one that's most readily available: shame. It doesn't rob him of his riches or make him any less despicable, but the one punishment Sterling can't escape is that he has to live with himself.