As our nation joins together tonight in a collective feast of righteous celebration, content in the knowledge we have struck a blow against bigotry and injustice, there are some things we need to consider. Why exactly are we celebrating and what does this mean for our society? This is not to say that the banning of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is not a positive development for the NBA, the Clippers organization or the nation as a whole, but it really says more about how we settle problems in this nation than it does about him.
For residents of Southern California and anyone who has followed the NBA over the past few decades, his comments released Sunday provided no surprises. From the moment he acquired the (then San Diego) Clippers franchise Sterling has been a negative presence to his players, to his management, as well as fans in both Los Angeles and San Diego. And while this certainly provides us a somewhat justified reason to relish seeing an ignorant blowhard get knocked down a peg, we should reflect on our priorities and our entire concept of how we dispense “social justice.”
It is worth noting at this juncture of the article that I shed no tears or hold no sense of common cause with Donald Sterling. His arrogance, his bigotry and his entire personality is one that I find repugnant. Not only is he all the things mentioned and more, he is the ultimate in hypocrisy, having gained his wealth and power via (not to mention sharing a bed with) the very same group of people he disparaged and displayed obvious contempt and hate for. The irony that these latest in a continuous pattern of hateful comments came to the public’s attention at the same time as the international Jewish community gathered in somber remembrance of the holocaust serves to further highlight his hypocrisy.
Having made that perfectly clear, it is now time to play the role of party buzz-kill. While most of us would agree the NBA acted accordingly in its decision to issue a lifetime ban against Donald Sterling and convene the leagues board of governors to force him to sell the franchise, there were aspects of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s press conference that are very troubling. When asked by a reporter whether the league based their decision on Sterling’s pattern of behavior over the years, Silver declared that the decision made today did not take any previous comments or actions into consideration. The question was most likely prompted by the entirety of the statement, as Silver referred exclusively to the now-famous taped conversation.
To begin, it is difficult to believe that at some level Sterling’s long established behavior of insensitivity and bigotry did not play into the minds of league officials as they discussed their options and what level of discipline to render, which makes Silver’s response seem somewhat disingenuous. Furthermore Silver’s repeated references to the NBA’s history of inclusion and rattling off a list of African-American players came across as patronizing and obligatory. This has caused many close to league, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among others, to question the NBA’s sincerity in the matter. And while it may be a matter of semantics, by stating that the league based their decision to ban him for life solely on the public exposure of a lone conversation that a man had with his girlfriend, in the heat of the moment, they are establishing a very dangerous precedent, with societal ramifications far beyond that of NBA league guidelines.
This is something that should trouble us all just a bit. Not in how this relates to Sterling, because I think its safe to say that we have ample evidence of his previous behavior to emphatically declare him an individual of loathsome character, but the cultural precedents this sets. Who among us can say with absolute certainty that they have never, particularly in matters of passion or jealousy, made a private statement that if brought to the public’s attention would not also be grounds for similar banishment if that is indeed the standard of judgement?
We live in an age where technology continues to break down the barriers of space and time. In a world where nearly everyone has a recording and videotaping device on their phones (or thanks to the good folks at Google their spectacles or contact lenses) this makes it all the more important that organizations like the NBA, or any company or organization for that matter, choose its words very carefully in matters such as this. Our culture is the sum of all its parts, and when events such as these take place in the public arena, they tend to trickle downward from there. What is the standard for an organization like the NBA soon becomes the norm at the local public school or Main Street office building.
By setting the standard that one lone statement can lead one to such consequences we are setting ourselves up either for a nationwide “purging” or a standard of behavior where we live in fear and must be on constant guard of what we say, even in our own homes. Call me an alarmist, but its not far fetched to believe that over the course of a generation, this can lead to a nation of robot-like individuals spitting out innocuous and pre-programmed responses. Not only does this make us less human, but forces thought and feelings inward, which is always more dangerous than open and free discussion.
While it can be argued that despite what the NBA may have stated, it is self-evident that he was not judged on one comment alone but on the sum of his public transgressions, the record will show he was driven out of the NBA based solely on the vile comments we all heard on that one tape. The things we say and how we communicate with one another are very important and while it is just that Donald Sterling’s consistent insensitivity, hate and contempt for his fellow countrymen should come with a cost, because words are so very important the NBA has a responsibility to document what they too were thinking. Because as Sterling found out, words can come back to haunt you.
Opinion by Paul M Winters