We previously discussed the racist comments of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. We discussed the possible sanctions under the NBA rules, which are confidential. This afternoon NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Clippers owner Donald Sterling will be suspended for life and fined $2.5 million. That blows away any prior sanction of the NBA.
Silver announced “I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers association or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices, he may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or decisions involving the team.” That is pretty much a demand that he sell the team though he could use his general manager for some of those functions.
The $2.5 million fine will be donated to anti-discrimination organizations, which is a particularly nice touch.
I have little sympathy for Sterling and found his comments deeply disturbing and unsettling. However, it will be interesting to see if Sterling, who is a lawyer, will fight the fine. He is being banned and fine for private comments that he did not intend to be released publicly. While this is not the government (raising first amendment issues), it is a free speech questions. We have been discussing how government employees like teachers and police officers have been punished for statements and activities in their private lives. I have opposed that trend. In this case, Sterling did not even intend for this comments to go to anyone other than his girlfriend.
The question is where the line is drawn on private comments. No one would suggest sanctions Larry Johnson for (after the Sterling comments) reportedly called for all-black teams and league or his prior comments calling players “rebellious slaves.” He was clearly upset with the news and venting on social media. I understand that. Indeed, his call for some black owners of NBA team is understandable given this controversy and reflects a long-standing objection to the paucity of black owners in the NBA. Yet, those were intended to be public comments and might be viewed as offensive by white players or owners or fans. If the NBA rules extend to private communications, I am curious as to how it distinguishes between comments both public and private. When it comes to free speech, we tend to favor bright line rules but this is a rule that is neither published nor clear. Sterling may be the easy case due to the vile nature of these comments but Silver does not address the standard that has been and will be applied to owners and players.
The counter to this argument is that, as a NBA owner, Sterling agreed to comply with the rules, including the undisclosed rules of conduct. His comments clearly created an embarrassment for the NBA and other teams. Yet, my guess is that these rules are vaguely worded and this sanction is far beyond prior punishments. He probably could challenge it under contractual and even anti-trust theories.
In the end, he is being banned for being a racist (which he vehemently denies). However, if he did not act in a racist manner to the team or fans, should his private views be the basis for a ban. What is owners are anti-gay or anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim in private? Can they all be banned if a third party reveals their views or a private conversation surfaces?
What do you think?