Problematizing the decision to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA

The problem with the (correct) decision to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling

April 30, 2014 / by / 31 Comments

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a reprehensible piece of flaming canine excrement. Sterling’s remarks to his then-girlfriend were shocking in their ignorance, beyond upsetting for their bald demonstration of harmful racial ideology from a man who has long-perpetuated institutional racism, and downright fucking insane considering that this dirtbag—a man so committed to racial domination that he’s been sued twice by the Justice Department for housing discrimination—has owned (and subsequently driven into the ground) the Clippers since the Reagan administration in a predominantly black league with a global footprint. NBA commissioner Adam Silver did the right thing by quickly and decisively banning Sterling from the league for life, fining him $2.5 million, and setting the wheels in motion to strip Sterling of his franchise.

I agree with Silver’s decision to show that racial hatred has no place in the NBA. But there is one aspect of the decision that causes me concern: speech.

I am uncomfortable about the precedent of banning any member of the league, from players to coaches to billionaire geriatrics who would presumably rather see Steve Kerr on their GF’s Instagram feed, on account of their words. I am not, however, saying that the NBA infringed on Sterling’s right to free speech — it did not. Any owner can freely communicate their ideas, which Sterling did. The Donald’s hate speech was held accountable to the governing body ruling the league, and I am glad that the league is redressing his vile remarks to the fullest extent possible.

But what bothers me is that nobody knows where the line is drawn. Sterling’s comments exist on just one particularly vicious end of a spectrum of racist thinking, a spectrum that includes former commissioner Stern’s rules and opinions regarding the league’s dress code or hip hop. At what point does the NBA decide it is unwilling to tolerate intolerance? Because that point apparently wasn’t crossed after it came out that Sterling wouldn’t sell houses in Beverly Hills to black people who he was on record accusing of “smelling.”

We also must remember that hate speech comes in all shapes and sizes and pits of ignorance. Even though any thinking man, woman, or Mark Cuban should be offended by Sterling’s comments, pretty much every article about Sterling these past couple of days has referenced the fact that approximately 75% of NBA players identify as black to demonstrate how sick it is that Sterling perpetuated a plantation ideology that black men were fine laborers for his entertainment, but that better not come inside to the table or cavort with his half-black mistress.1 Which is fine, but what if Sterling’s comments had been homophobic instead of racist? I do not believe that such words would come anywhere close to garnering the extent or volume of public shaming that we witnessed in the past couple of days. Especially when approximately 0.25% of current NBA players have come out identifying as gay.

Silver made an unprecedented move to ban an owner from the NBA due to the scum in question being somehow more atrocious of a bigot than he was horrendous as an owner. In fact, it’s the first time I could find that anybody in the league has ever been banned for life due to some offense other than substance abuse or gambling affiliations. And to repeat, I am fine with this.

But I hope that Silver and the rest of the league are truly committed to ensuring that hateful speech and actions are eliminated in the myriad of different ways that they can manifest themselves in our society and the game that I love, and not just after an article blows up on TMZ. We are living through a time of incredible dialogue regarding race in our society. Let’s use this moment, not just to punish a man who at times makes Jesse Helms look like a radical, but to tackle the systemic forces that led to Sterling saying what he did in the first place.