The NBA’s issue with Clippers owner Donald Sterling became an NFL issue the moment Commissioner Roger Goodell said publicly that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver “made the right decision.”
Sterling, despite reports suggesting he was ready to go away quietly, strongly disagrees. In his formal filing to the NBA’s Board of Governors in response to the penalties imposed by Silver — lifetime ban, $2.5 million fine, and requirement to sell the team — Sterling makes arguments that will force the NBA, the NFL, and other sports leagues to consider more carefully the question of whether Sterling’s punishment fits his crime.
Sterling repeatedly argues that his shocking, blatantly racist remarks were made privately during a “lover’s quarrel” and were “illegally recorded.” One on hand, it doesn’t matter how the world gets a glimpse of the contents of a person’s soul. On the other hand, a large chunk of George Orwell’s vision of the future has come to fruition, with the role of Big Brother being played by anyone and everyone with a handheld device that can record audio and/or video.
“We do not believe a court in the United States of America will enforce the draconian penalties imposed on Mr. Sterling in these circumstances, and indeed, we believe that preservation of Mr. Sterling’s constitutional rights requires that these sham proceedings be terminated in Mr. Sterling’s favor,” Sterling’s submission argues.
Regardless of the contents of Sterling’s comments, the circumstances of the manner in which they were harvested raises the stakes not only for sports owners but for anyone and everyone whose words uttered in private and under the application of various stressors may or may not reflect what they truly and actually believe.
It’s hard to open the mind and accept that point in connection with Sterling, who started this excursion as an unsympathetic figure and whose image somehow became even worse after Sterling decided to sit for an interview with Anderson Cooper. But if the perception/reality that Sterling is a scoundrel influences the ultimate outcome, an unfortunate precedent could be set for the many non-scoundrels who may end up in similar predicaments.
Speaking of precedent, Sterling’s submission identifies various other infractions committed by NBA players, executives, and owners that have resulted in far lesser penalties. Setting aside the question of whether the same standard should be applied to owners and players, Sterling points out that one owner donated $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, prompting a call for a boycott from LGBT advocacy groups. (While not identified by Sterling, he’s apparently referring Doug DeVos of the Orlando Magic.)
“On the topic of HIV/AIDS, the same owner had this to say in an interview 2010,” Sterling’s submission states. “‘When HIV first came out President Reagan formed a commission, and I was honored to be on that commission. I listened to 300 witnesses tell us that it was everybody else’s fault but their own. Nothing to do with their conduct, just that the government didn’t fix this disease. At the end of that I put in the document, it was the conclusion document from the commission, that actions have consequences and you are responsible for yours. AIDS is a disease that people gain because of their actions. It wasn’t like cancer. We all made the exceptions for how you got it, by accident, that was all solved a long time ago. . . . That’s when they started hanging me in effigy because I wasn’t sympathetic to all their requests for special treatment. Because at that time it was always someone else’s fault. I said, you are responsible for your actions too, you know. Conduct yourself properly, which is a pretty solid Christian principle.'”
Sterling points out that the NBA took no action in either situation.
“No owner, coach, or player has ever been fined close to $2.5 million, banned for life, and forced to sell their property for any offense, let alone an alleged private speech-related offense,” Sterling’s submission contends. “The NBA claims a commitment to diversity and inclusion, but it appears to have ignored many public statements undermining those principles in the past. In fact, the only permanent bans of record — other than the ban the Commissioner currently requests — involve gambling violations and repeated violations of the NBA’s substance-abuse policy. And further, as far as Mr. Sterling is aware, no one in the NBA has ever been punished for speaking in a private constitutionally protected setting.”
Again, Sterling deserves no sympathy. But the handling his situation sets a precedent for the NBA and, presumably, the NFL; otherwise, Goodell wouldn’t have publicly praised Silver for making the right decision.
Goodell has a chance to apply that precedent in the case of Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose transgression consisted of allegedly driving an automobile while under the influence of potent medications. Reasonable minds could conclude that creating a public-safety hazard is far worse than making convoluted private statements in the heat of an argument with a love interest that were illegally recorded. It remains to be seen how Goodell’s mind processes the situation in light of the proposed Sterling penalties.