NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handed down an emotion-filled, sports-related death sentence Tuesday for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in response to the racially fueled remarks he recently was caught uttering.
There’s no question this was a landmark decision in the context of professional sports. A $2.5 million fine aside, banning someone for life (think Pete Rose and Major League Baseball) from the NBA — coupled with the commissioner’s near-guarantee that the league’s 29 other owners will support his desire to force Sterling to sell the team — is a big deal.
But Silver’s to-the-maximum punishment is about so much more when we look at the context of modern life in America and where we’ve come as a society that, in its very primitive stages four centuries ago, felt it was morally just to kidnap people of color, sell them as property, and maim (or murder) them as part of an overall effort to get chores done.
There’s really no “law,” per se, that makes it legal or illegal to be a racist. In fact, the First Amendment and the free speech associated with it is about the only thing out there that governs and allows people to say what’s on their mind.
There’s no debate what Sterling said was said in private, and you can question the tactics of “news” tabloid TMZ all you want in terms of obtaining audio recordings and breaking the story, but the fact is that Sterling’s statements were made public. And because of it, Silver had no choice but to hand down the punishment he did.
Now, I’m not saying “no choice” as if Silver was backed into a corner. To be clear, I fully support Silver’s decision. I label it that way because I feel there was no other possible way to treat a situation like this.
A man of Sterling’s caliber — a wealthy 1-percenter who owns a professional sports team of athletes that inspire our youth and partner with our communities to help build schools and shed awareness to our country’s poverty problems — makes him a public figure.
Simply put, public figures are held to higher standards. It’s why we publish information about shady campaign funds for elected officials or DUI arrests for newspaper editors. While it may sting to have dirty laundry aired in public, holding those people accountable is one of the dearest hallmarks of our profession as journalists. In our eyes, the public deserves to know.
And when a public figure like Sterling is busted saying he doesn’t want black people at his basketball games, well, that’s worth looking into and reporting. The original TMZ report on Friday, the backlash over the weekend and the punishment handed down Tuesday have nothing to do with violation of one’s First Amendment rights. Instead, it has everything to do with setting an example.
It’s unfortunate there are people in the world who still have a racially charged mindset. I’d like to think that we’ve matured as a society and have gotten past the fact some people felt it was appropriate to enter into the slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s, that some people backed Jim Crow laws, that some people supported segregation and fought the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
I’d like to think.
But what I know is the opposite still exists with some people. And that makes me shake my head in disappointment.
So what Adam Silver did Tuesday by damning Donald Sterling was more than just saving a basketball franchise from further embarrassment of being associated with a racist owner. It goes beyond a common-sense-business-saving attempt to strengthen the LA Clippers’ pedigree as a powerful sports team that sells out stadiums to gleeful fans and is backed by corporate sponsors.
What Silver did was send a clear and public message that the NBA will not tolerate racism. And as evidenced by the commentary and social media on Tuesday after he sent that message, a majority of people are on the same level.
Now, the $64,000 question: Will the NBA’s actions stop people from being racists? Not a chance. But what it will do is make people — particularly public figures — think twice before sharing their views, even if they think no one is listening.
And while that isn’t the ideal solution to the issue of racism in America, the example that’s now been set does accomplish something. As the saying goes, you can’t fix stupid. But maybe now, it’ll be a bit easier to ignore the people who bleed stupidity.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.