Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, has banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life and fined him $2.5 million. Under the ban, Sterling will not be allowed to attend games or practices or make decisions about the team he owns. It is not yet clear whether the NBA will force him to sell the Clippers.
I find myself agreeing with Bill Maher, who wrote of the private remarks that got Sterling into trouble: “Sterling def[initely] a racist, but take away his team? Clippers shldn’t have played yesterday? Calm down, being [a jerk] is still legal.” I guess Maher didn’t call his old show “Politically Incorrect” for nothing.
To make matters worse, I find myself agreeing with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. He warned that that NBA should be “very, very careful” in judging “what people say and think, as opposed to what they do.” What a quaint distinction.
In theory, at least, Americans still have the right to hold offensive and even racist opinions, and to express them in private (or in public for that matter). To strip Sterling of his ability to control, or even to participate in, his own business and to impose a massive fine for private statements expressing a degree of racial prejudice strikes me as offensive and dangerous.
To be sure, the NBA needs to protect its business (or its “brand,” to use the current jargon). Accordingly, it needed to take some action against Sterling. But declining to impose the draconian measures Silver came up with would not have hurt the NBA. If Silver had opted for fairer, less severe penalties, players would have continued to play and fans would have continued to watch. Show me the player who would have forfeited part of his paycheck if, for example, Sterling had been suspended for half a season.
Silver’s decision was not about protecting the NBA. More likely, it was about a new commissioner hoping to make a favorable impression and curry favor with the players and the media. Silver gets to play the hero at the expense of a villain about whose rights no one cares.