Wednesday, April 30, 2014

NBA Team-Owner Faces Wrath of the Mob For Racist Conversation

As the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were looking at two cases involving cellphone privacy from the standpoint of police access, NBC Commissioner Adam Silver announced that he had banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from attending any NBA team practice or game for life and was being fined $2.5 million. Interestingly, given the tenor of the public discourse, the Clippers’ owner had not made a public pronouncement regarding his negative view of black people; rather, a tabloid had taped and broadcast a private cellphone conversation. That is to say, Sterling would have to pay a multi-million dollar fine for what he had said in a private conversation with his girlfriend. I contend there is reason to pause at this news, lest such public pressure establish the precedent wherein the passions of the mob is effectively given such reign as to render property ownership and the rule of law as so contingent that might makes right. 

Had the NSA rather than a Hollywood tabloid outfit recorded the conversation and made it public, the absolutist tone in the media’s non-debate would doubtlessly have been muted. Even so, the judgment on Sterling’s less-than-sterling moral turpitude would probably have been just as swift. Interestingly, a judge in Egypt had just announced his sentencing of over 600 defendants to death after what had been a ten-minute trial (with the vast majority of the defendants tried in abstentia). Although no one was publically calling for Sterling’s head literally, the air of la fait accompli would be difficult to miss throughout the American media. The sheer absolutist tone rings particularly shrill in a democratic republic that enshrines the rule of law rather than that of garden-variety dislike (whether that of Sterling or his many detractors).

As one pundit said on CNN, “You can’t fall on the other side of this issue.”[1] He added that the same applies to childhood obesity. Presumably a NBA team owner cannot denigrate fat kids and expect to be able to continue to attend the team’s practices and games. Saying “that player’s kid is a real fattie” on a private phone call thus risks the kid’s big brother coming back with public condemnations and a demand that the team owner be banned and even forced to sell his or her property.  In other words, property ownership can be contingent what a person says in private conversations that can be construed by other people as immoral or out of sync with contemporary societal norms.

Overwhelmed by the lashing out of anger at the octogenarian who had grown up in a very different era—indeed, in another century, when Nazi doctors were measuring facial features to extract impure races from Europe—the media barely mentioned the lack of any precedent in the NBA for removing an owner, and that moral turpitude is not listed in the bylaws as justifying the remove of an owner’s property-interest in a team.[2] Although a provision allows for “the interests of any owner” to be terminated if he or she “wilfully violates” any other provisions of the NBA “constitution,” The Wall Street Journal reports, “Many of the behaviors that constitute a justification for a forced sale involve financial issues, like failing to make payments on time or gambling on NBA games.”[3] If what is said in a private conversation between a man and his girlfriend can constitute a wilful violation of virtually anything stated or implied in the “constitution,” then why even bother with parchment?

One commentator even decried the owners for not having acted immediately to divest Sterling of his ownership, as if the owners would be justified in ignoring the NBA’s board of governors’ bylaws that give Sterling a period to reply and plead his case to his peers.[4] The sudden invisibility of the NBA’s own rules was itself largely off the media’s radar screen, conveniently dwarfed by the cavalcade of calls for Sterling’s head on a silver plate. John Locke, who had penned on the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, would doubtless be more than a bit uneasy at the demands that Sterling be forced to sell his property in such a way. Put another way, if owning a NBA team is so contingent, does ownership even apply?

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We are so human, all too human in fact, in our wilful summary judgments and infallible sentencing—both presumptions being based on the human instinct of dislike and even hatred stemming from an unrequited injury from the past—that we hardly realize collectively (i.e., in our public discourse as a society) that we have all sailed right past the rule of law as though it were some relic from an ancient saint. The irony here is of course that lynching used to be associated with Caucasian racists rather than their foes. 

One of Sterling’s attackers, one of many pundits referred to the need for healing following the “conversation on race.” Yet it fell on Chuck Todd as if to remind both his colleagues and the public at large that “there was no debate; no one defended [Sterling].”[5] This point ought to give us all at least some pause, regardless of which view we hold on this case, presuming we as a civilized society still believe in the rule of law rather than the passions of the mob, and still value the true diversity that is necessary for truly free and open public discourse.

[1] The Situation Room, CNN, April 29, 2014.
[2] One exception was Chuck Todd of NBC News, as evinced on The Daily Rundown, MSNBC, April 30, 2014.
[3] Ashley Jones, “NBA’s Decision Against Clippers’ Owner: Is It Legal?The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2014.
[4] Christine Brennan, “Owners Drop Ball,” USA Today, April 29, 2014.
[5] Chuck Todd, The Daily Rundown, MSNBC, April 30, 2014.