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.
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.