Donald Sterling, Racism, and Liberal Society

Unfortunately the biggest story this weekend and probably the rest of this week is Donald Sterling, the LA Clippers owner, and his alleged racist comments. It is unfortunate in two main ways: (1) it is sad, disappointing, and infuriating that people still cling to such irrational views; and (2) it is sad, disappointing, and infuriating that this story pushes aside some great sports and dominates the news cycle. The first rounds of the NHL and NBA playoffs are going on. I haven’t watched the NBA playoffs, but the NHL games have been amazing. (And some great European football matches too, but those don’t get much coverage anyway).

The Sterling incident certainly is newsworthy and ought to be publicly discussed. While we have come a long way, race is still a problem. Honest and objective public discourse about race is hard to find. There is a lot of hypocrisy and double standards to such conversations. The Sterling incident reminds us both that racism stills exists and that we still have serious difficulties talking about it.

Proper Response

Assuming the recordings of Sterling are authentic, the views expressed should be condemned and criticized. But there is a wider call for action. Many want Sterling suspended, fined, or removed from his ownership position. Some are calling boycotts of the Clipper games. Sponsors have already started to pull out of their relationships with the Clippers.

These are tricky waters. I wouldn’t want to work for or with someone who I knew to hold the views Sterling expressed. If I was Doc Rivers or Chris Paul, I’d probably be scrutinizing my contract for a way out. If I was Adam Silver, I’d be digging through the NBA by-laws to find a way to put some considerable distance between the NBA and Sterling.

At the same time, I worry about the calls for Sterling’s removal from ownership. A flourishing and free society needs freedom of speech and conscience. This doesn’t only apply to the views we think are correct. It applies to offensive and irrational views such as the one’s Sterling appears to believe. It applies to Nazi’s wanting to march in Skokie, IL. It applies to a-holes who picket military funerals with homophobic signs. A society is treading in dangerous waters when it makes certain beliefs either required or forbidden.

The freedom of speech and conscience is not, however, freedom from consequences of one’s views. No one is (or at least ought to be) under any obligation to associate or do business with any one else. One is free to be a bigot, but I am equally free to avoid dealing with that person.

Here in lies the paradox of liberal societies. On one hand, as individuals we are free to associate with whom we want. This includes avoiding associating with those with whom one doesn’t want to deal. On the other hand, as a society we need to protect the freedom of everyone to believe what they want.

Should the NBA do what it can (legally and within its by-laws) to get Sterling out of his position as owner of the Clippers? Probably. Sterling is an embarrassment to the NBA and offensive to most of the audience (of all races) the NBA targets. The other owners probably have no more wish than most of us to do business with Sterling now. At the same time, we need to be careful about treating views that are offensive or otherwise outside of the given norms as sufficient reason for social and economic ostracism.

Update 4/29: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has suspended Sterling for life and fined him 2.5 million dollars.

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