Even people who aren’t on Twitter were on Twitter last night, as a continuous crawl of tweets ran below the Warriors-Clippers game on TNT. Every one of them complimented NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and/or thumbed a nose at future-ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making those sentiments appear unanimous.

They aren’t, of course. While very few sentient beings out there would defend Sterling on his merits, a significant fraction of Americans are distressed that someone has been severely punished for something he said – more than that, for something he said in a private conversation.

This is muddy road for me. Generally, I am bothered by official sanctions based on offensive speech. Not to get too soapbox-y here, but the First Amendment is real, and it’s there for all of us, as well as our political and cultural opposites.  we all should be generally free to express our beliefs and be free from employer sanctions, even if we’re  not talking about government censorship.

Here’s one illustration. Almost exactly a year ago, ESPN commentator Chris Broussard characterized Jason Collins’ coming out as “an open rebellion to God” and suggested Collins and other gays could be saved through prayer. I joined the chorus scolding Broussard on Twitter and wound up in some fairly heated exchanges with people who thought the analyst’s freedom of speech was being abridged. I lost some followers.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t want Broussard to be suspended by ESPN, or fined, and certainly not fired. It was an uncomfortable moment, but it worked more or less as it should. Broussard spoke his mind, others took exception and fired back, Broussard clarified his comments without backing down. Maybe it changed the way you viewed him, or viewed his opposition, but it was purely a battle of opinion.

Ideally, that’s how the Sterling situation would have played out, his comeuppance coming through informal channels. Instead, the NBA has wielded his private conversation like a cudgel.

That sucks.

And yet the league really had no choice in the matter, because professional sports are not like other businesses. Forcing young black athletes to play for Sterling (or to move to Turkey or China to display their talents) simply because they were drafted by the Clippers is unconscionable. Veteran free agents could choose to shun his team, but where does that leave the draft picks?

Anyway, with every major sponsor pulling their support from the Clippers, the franchise would lose viability. Attendance would have dwindled, and Sterling’s team probably would have slowly died on the vine for a few years, until he finally sold or passed away. It would have been a miserable situation – even compared to Sterling’s stewardship of the Clippers before Blake Griffin and Chris Paul arrived.

None of it feels very satisfying, but at least we are not required to feel sorry for Donald Sterling. When he purchased an NBA franchise, he knew he wasn’t buying a 7-11 or a dry cleaning operation, and that he would be held to a standard that, ultimately, he was destined to fall short of.


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  1. Artabius Reed

    Don’t you understand that the first and fourteenth amendments prohibit only government interference with free speech? It says: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press … .” It is not applicable to sanctions being taken by private groups or associations. The last I heard, the NBA is not an official governmental organization. The first amendment is not applicable to Sterlings statements or the Nba’s actions.

    May 1st, 2014 10:21 am

  2. Johnny

    Freedom of Speech doesn’t grant freedom from repercussions from what one said.

    May 1st, 2014 10:35 am

  3. John

    “Free Speech” and the First Amendment are totally irrelevant to a non-governmental entity sanctioning one of its members or an employee. The First Amendment ONLY prohibits the government from sanctioning and punishing free speech. A private company is completely within its rights to dismiss or punish employees for offensive speech and the Constitution has nothing to do with it. The Constitution only sets out and restricts the powers of the federal government.
    The First Amendment has nothing to do with how the NBA deals with its owner/members.

    May 1st, 2014 1:27 pm

  4. Craig

    Exactly where does the first amendment come in to play here? To quote “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Exactly where did Congress, another government body, try to abridge speech here? The first amendment does not at all restrict non-governmental blow-back for speech.

    We have the right to not be jailed for our speech, but we do not have the right to say anything we want without consequences.

    May 1st, 2014 8:40 pm

  5. f1fan6

    Who are the racists? You have BLACK spring break, Black doctors association, Black teachers association, the list goes on. Replace Black with White and the world screams racial prejudice. Who are the racists here? What a man says in his own home should be sacrosanct. I hope his floozy is prosecuted for illegal taping. Serve the little gold digger right. As for his team you don’t see any of them returning their huge paychecks in protest.

    May 2nd, 2014 4:40 am

  6. ML Carle

    Check out the Daily Beast for info on his wife as a landlady. This pair seem like such dinosaurs – as if Martin Luther King never existed, as if Sterling’s girlfriend, who doesn’t appear to be “white”, would not be offended by what he was telling her.

    May 2nd, 2014 9:46 am

  7. Phil Barber

    Great point. I should have discussed our tolerance for listening to people’s offensive speech, but not necessarily framed it as a First Amendment issue.

    May 2nd, 2014 6:30 pm

  8. Phil Barber

    Yes. See my reply to Craig, and thanks.

    May 2nd, 2014 6:31 pm

  9. Phil Barber

    Yes. You, too, nailed it.

    May 2nd, 2014 6:32 pm

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