Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thoughts on the Sterling Scandal and the NBA

Donald Sterling is banned for life. The NBA has taken a stand. Everybody cheers and goes back to business as usual. I have conflicting feelings about this news.

First, I don't really think the NBA is concerned about social justice or civil rights. If they were half the owners in the league would be banned (hello Cavs owner who ripped off middle-class families with mortgages and the Nets owner who is a Russian oligarch involved in all sorts of atrocities). Furthermore Sterling's racism and sexism have been known for decades including actual housing discrimination which directly hurt black and Latino families. The NBA was silent throughout all this court evidence and documentation.

I think the lifetime ban was for business purposes. The threats of a player boycotting of just one playoff day would have cost the NBA ridiculously large amounts of millions (TV, ticket reimbursement, paying players, suing them, lawyers). All teams would be hurt and could spin off into NBA players blackballing the Clippers and refusing to play for them, thereby making a billion dollar property worthless due to the personality of one guy. This probably pissed off the owners more than anything else: one person's stupid comments costing everyone money. Given Sterling's history if the league would have let him off easy, he would probably do or say something else that would harm them again in the future.

Furthermore I do believe that the class of billionaires who own sports franchises are probably not the most socially liberal and enlightened. There's probably as much hatred spewed every day in many sports front offices as was on that TMZ-leaked tape. Even though there is no tape to prove this (yet), we can deduce this theory by simply examining the actions of the many owners involved in lying to local governments, tricking cash-starved counties into forking over billions for new stadiums, and hold entire regions hostage with incessant demands that harm many others for the sake of their exclusive benefit. Yes, it is safe to say that the 'average' sports franchise billionaire will not be chaining themselves to a tree any time soon, much less concern themselves with most social inequalities.

Second, you can't tape record people without their permission or a warrant. That's illegal in almost all states. Yes, it's a minor point in the context of this story but a pretty significant one when it comes to human rights and the protection of privacy. In 2005 a Miami Herald reporter tape recorded the conversation of corrupt politician, Art Teele. Jim DeFede's recordings are salacious and scandalous. But when the Herald found out about it, they immediately fired him and cleared out his desk. Since it's highly illegal, you can't submit this information to a court. But who needs a court when you have public opinion. The tape was skillfully leaked and caused exponentially more damage than any law could do in only a few days. I do wonder if this is justice? And in this day in age are we still trying to stick by the ethical principle that everyone deserves some form of impartial justice, even despicable racists and misogynists. Is this a principle that we're willing to abandon? It wasn't too long ago that we were having this argument about a much more serious problem: Al Qaeda and terrorism. We have apparently answered the first part of this moral dilemma with the Patriot Act and rolling back the rights for all Americans.

Finally, there is a difference between legal theories and everyday realities. Something needed to be done. Despite the NBA's craven motivations, it would have been even more intolerable for the league to hide behind Sterling's civil rights, however valid they may be in the court of law. Sports depends upon mob thinking and a certain tribal mentality. The NBA tribe, village, livestock, pets, and bloggers had turned against Sterling. Once animosity reaches a certain tipping points, then all constitutions and ruling documents have one basic tenet that supersedes all others: keep order. Emergency powers exist in all governments for the practical purposes of maintaining stability during a crisis. Some times laws must be ignored for set periods of time just to keep a community going. Only a legal purist would try to refute the need for exceptions and the leeway for extreme measures to be taken under certain situations. In the past, these exceptions were used for threats of civil war and acts of God. I do wonder if our mediated age has made it necessary to add a third category for exceptional powers: extreme and prolonged public outrage that spreads through social media. And if the offending party can be removed by the ruling powers with minimal risk, then do despicable people like Donald Sterling become the exceptional case in the 21st century? Can someone be such an unrepentant and odious person that their actions endanger others.

A few years ago, a Florida pastor threatened to burn a copy of the Koran.  The man sounded hateful, anti-Muslim, and extremely unpleasant. In short he sounded like millions of other bigots in this country. But his vow to do it on camera set off a social media storm. People said his actions could put US troops at risk around the world, terrorist might attack soft targets, the president condemned his planned action, and everyone agreed that this would be a terrible, awful thing. State and federal government officials searched for any loophole in the law that could stop this man. This was his way of exercising freedom of expression and speech in the same way that people burned the American flag in anti-war protests. Yet this one man seemed to hold the nation hostage. Eventually he backed away from burning the Koran, or at least doing so in public. This was acceptable. I found this highly amusing and strange. This pastor might have gone ahead and burned the Koran in his bathtub. Who knows, he might still be burning holy books right now. But the issue was his publicizing, Instagramming, Facebooking, Tweeting, and taking camera videos of it. But then again, I suppose someone like that would never burn a Koran unless there was someone there to record it. It would be pointless without the outrage. So if another person came forward wanting to burn the Koran, would it be all right to stop him for the sake of societal preservation?

Bringing this back down to entertainment, politics, and millionaire athletes, I wonder if this Sterling scandal will be a learning experience for others. Major League baseball banned Cincinnatti Reds owner Marge Schott because her racism and anti-semitism reached a certain decibel level that threatened to drown out the very thing she was a part of: sports. There is no power to make bigots like Schott or Sterling learn to accept others or -at least- to be sensible enough to fake acceptance in front of cameras and tape recorders.   The learning has to happen in quiet moments away from social judgment and it must be among the outraged, offended, and incensed. The lessons that can be learned from the Sterling scandal aren't for the man himself, who may be too far gone in delusion and hatred. The lessons are for us.

1 comment:

Mildred said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the illegal taping. We don't want to casually toss privacy safeguards, especially in light of the NSA revelations and Wikileaks.

I feel less sure the critique of the NBA. I agree but don't see it the same way. Much good case law and a great deal of positive social change has been affected by people who were flawed, problematic or self interested.