New NBA commissioner Adam Silver faces a difficult test early in his tenure regarding the potential punishment of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. TMZ publicized an audiotape of the Clips owner allegedly conversing with his girlfriend V. Stiviano. In the taped conversation, a male voice alleged to be the team boss tells the woman not to post Instagram pictures with African Americans nor bring them to Clippers games. By all accounts, the conversation was a private one between Sterling and his girlfriend, assuming he is the male voice on the tape. Further, no evidence exists he had knowledge of his voice being taped nor any consent to taping.
The commissioner of the NBA has broad power to punish or sanction players and owners for actions not in the “best interests” of the league. On a halftime broadcast of game four of the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks game, TNT analyst and hall of fame player Charles Barkley called for the commissioner to suspend Sterling based on his alleged racist utterances. Further, Reverend Al Sharpton has pledged to picket league offices if firm action against the wayward owner does not occur. No doubt, Silver is feeling pressure to act and he will address the media this evening regarding this matter.
In all likelihood, the new commissioner will exercise his investigative powers to determine if the voice on the tape is Sterling. While the commissioner or other NBA employee may attempt to question the owner, he could hide behind his attorneys to avoid answering on the record. He is probably huddling with attorneys today to discuss his legal options to avoid answering league questions. The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to speak without governmental interference. Unfortunately for the owner, the constitutional freedoms to do not prohibit business associates from taking action based on racist statements.
If the owner actually said what is alleged and the statement reflected his actual feelings, then he is truly reprehensible. He has been sued for housing discrimination in the past and settled out of court. What makes the situation difficult here is that Sterling was having a private conversation with his girlfriend without knowledge of being taped. Everyone has probably said something behind closed doors they would not want broadcast across the globe. No doubt Al Sharpton and Charles Barkley have said things privately they would not want to become public. Commissioner Silver’s leadership will be tested as he tries to figure out what punishment, if any, should be levied against Donald Sterling for his alleged private racist statements.
One could argue that by occupying a high profile position as an NBA owner, Sterling has consented to all the scrutiny that potentially goes with this position, which could include publication of private comments. While some players may want to see the owner punished in some fashion, they could be called out on the carpet before the commissioner based on something they say in private that becomes public knowledge. The situation calls for some consideration of privacy rights versus the reprehensible nature of what was said. Commissioner Silver faces a tough test in figuring out how to punish Donald Sterling if he determines the owner said what is alleged.
Commentary by William Costolo