Thursday, May 1, 2014

NBA's Polishing a Slippery Slope


I didn't know Los Angeles has two NBA teams.

I certainly didn't know who Donald Sterling is.

However, we now know more that we ever wanted to about the LA Clippers and Sterling, owner of the Clippers.  We know Sterling is a billionaire real estate mogul who's previously been sued for housing discrimination, and who's been cheating on his estranged wife with a black-haired trollop who flaunts the contrived appellation of V. Stiviano.  We know that Stiviano recorded a private conversation between herself and her presumed sugardaddy in which he voiced some indisputably racist opinions.

And we know that the NBA has banned Sterling from the league, and is maneuvering to wrest his franchise from him, forcing him to sell his stake in the Clippers.

As news of this atrocious affair gushed into our national consciousness, I couldn't help but be disgusted at the things Sterling has now admitted he said.  But I also became alarmed at what seemed like an obvious breach of Sterling's First Amendment right of free speech.

After all, it's not against the law to be a bigot.  It's not against the law to hate.  It's against the law to discriminate, but looking at the team members Sterling has hired to play for him, it's hard to argue that he's discriminated on the basketball court.  Or even in his choice of an adulteress.  Although apparently, his housing projects are another story entirely.

But is Sterling also prohibited from voicing personal views on whatever suits his fancy?  Just because he owns an NBA team?  Who determines what is offensive or not?  Is it not enough that sponsors, fans, and even players have the right to boycott people and organizations whose worldview they don't like?

As people with louder voices than mine started crying foul on the First Amendment thing, however, other people began defending the NBA from a legal standpoint, pointing out that as a franchisor, with specific rules onto which each franchisee has to sign, like any fast-food restaurant, Sterling's rights were not being denied.

He willfully violated the NBA's official code of conduct, and damaged the league financially.

"The NBA is a private club," claimed First Amendment legal expert Marc J. Randazza, "and it can discipline Sterling all it wants."

It's not as though this is the first time a major sports league has imposed stiff penalties upon a franchisee.  Baseball fans will recall the infamous bigotry of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who was twice banned by Major League Baseball for a total of three years - 1993, 1997, and 1998 - for her diatribes against blacks, gays, and Jews.

But times have changed, haven't they?  Whereas it took baseball practically a decade to subdue Schott and unravel the damage her opinions were inflicting upon the league, it took the NBA about three days.  And the NBA's punishment is far harsher.  And it was based on one private conversation that had been recorded.

Recorded, ostensibly (according to Stiviano) with her sugardaddy's consent.  Even though it's hard to grasp how even somebody as vulgar and belligerent as Sterling would agree to let her record him talking about her sex life.  In any other context, isn't it practically an open-and-shut case of entrapment on Stiviano's part?

Entrapment?  Illegal recording?  Jilted lover revenge?  Sure, on a shallow level, it's a soap opera LA's Hollywood elite are likely drooling to get into contract.  However, even if Sterling is forced to sell the Clippers, that's not the end of things.  Despite bland assurances by First Amendment experts, the ethics surrounding Sterling's sordid mess aren't simply a matter for the NBA to adjudicate, are they?  Even Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, described his league's punishment of Sterling as a "slippery slope."

Suppose, for example, that we weren't talking here about major league sports.  Or racism.  Let's say you've signed a stack of legal paperwork at your place of employment as a condition of your being hired.  Let's say one of those documents said something about you conducting yourself in a manner that did not defame or bring public scorn against your employer.  And let's say that you're taking a coffee break one afternoon, and a couple of co-workers are chatting with you about various topics of the day.

It's one of those inane conversations that frequently take place between meetings, while waiting for conference calls to begin, or upon chance gatherings of colleagues in an elevator lobby.  And one of you brings up the subject of gay marriage.

And you say you're opposed to gay marriage.

Uh-oh.

Somebody next to you has been playing with their cell phone, and they recorded your brief exchange.  Somebody else who is eager to get your job encourages them to post it on a social media site.  And you can take it from there.

Sure, if you usually advocate for things that are politically correct, maybe there's little to fear from the saga of Stiviano, Sterling, and sexist race-baiting.  People who don't like to contradict culture probably won't see how the NBA has pushed our society towards a slippery slope.

For the rest of us, however, it could be all downhill from here.


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