Five Ethical Failures in the Sterling Affair

The NBA’s decision to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a reasonable first step, but it doesn’t begin to deal effectively with the underlying problems – or even address some of the ethical failures by the too-many actors involved.

Five separate failures immediately come to mind.

1. Sterling’s comments. Now that Sterling has acknowledged that it really is his voice on the tape, there can be no explaining or excusing his views, nor any separate ethical acts he committed be used to mitigate the harm. Racism is inherently unethical, and we’re all obliged to help limit its harm.

2. The NBA’s past actions. While the lifetime ban announced today and the move to end Sterling’s ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers is a big step in the right direction, one has to wonder why the NBA didn’t act a lot earlier. Sterling’s long history of racism was no secret to the league and the other owners. A string of lawsuits for sexual harassment and housing discrimination, including one that led to a $2.76 million settlement with the federal government, provided plenty of reasons to act a long time ago.

3. The players, fans, advertisers, and the general public. It wasn’t just the NBA that failed to make an issue of Sterling; it was anyone who was paying attention to the very public behavior of the Clippers’ owner. The players’ union waited for the smoking gun before expressing real outrage, as did too many others. As The New York Times aptly put it today, “Why did it take a tape recording aired on a gossip website to ignite a nationwide ire against Donald Sterling?”

4. The NAACP. One of the strangest revelations was that the scandal broke as the L.A chapter of the NAACP was about to give Sterling a lifetime achievement award, his second in five years, in recognition of his generous contributions of cash to the NAACP and the poor and his gifts of free tickets to inner city youth. The L.A. chapter quickly cancelled the award and said Sterling’s contributions to the group will be returned. But that doesn’t begin to explain this anomaly. The first award, in 2009, gave Sterling cover at a time when he was refuting the racist charges. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, asked the NAACP, “Is this a payoff to your organization from Donald Sterling to essentially buy goodwill, to buy a civil rights imprimatur, to buy credentials as a humanitarian? Are these credentials for sale?” We need an answer to those questions.

5. Those responsible for making Sterling’s comments public. This is a tricky area, in part because the facts aren’t yet known. It’s illegal—and unethical—to record people without their knowledge, but Sterling’s girlfriend, V. Stiviano, is reportedly claiming that Sterling knew he was being recorded and is denying that she leaked the tapes. I say “reportedly” because Stiviano isn’t saying anything publicly. Maybe a secret leak of the tapes was the only way to get important news out—and maybe this is one of those cases when the ends justify the means—but it doesn’t feel that way. If no laws were broken, those involved should step up and explain their role.

That’s five ethical failures involving an awful lot of people, and we’re still waiting for the fat lady to sing.

But this problem goes far beyond this specific man, this specific incident, and the ethics of what’s happened in the last few days. As the scandal plays out, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger underlying issue: the prevalence of racism in the U.S. and elsewhere. In his column in The Washington Post today, Eugene Robinson gave us a good starting point for the conversation that needs to take place.


5 thoughts on “Five Ethical Failures in the Sterling Affair

  1. 1. Racism per se is not a crime. Mr. Sterling has a right to his own feelings and his own thoughts. And he has a right to share them, in private, with his girlfriend. It cannot be criminal and it cannot be unethical to feel what you feel.

    2. Discrimination based solely in racial prejudice, on the other hand, is both a crime and immoral. You said that Sterling had been taken to court for housing discrimination, and subject to penalties. And that’s how it should be.

    3. The NBA must take a strong stand against racist behavior to protect its players and against racist speech to protect our children. As a private organization, it may expel members who fall short of the values that the organization stands for. And, the question as to why it took so long seems valid.

    4. The fact that Sterling was contributing to the NAACP and giving tickets to inner city youths and doing other public services, such that the NAACP would choose twice to award him, makes me wonder. If he had continued to act publicly to support the advancement of black men, and kept his racist feelings private, then that would have been valid. You can’t always cure your own racism. But you can become aware of it, and take steps to make sure it doesn’t cause harm.

    5. Which brings us back to the tapes of his comments that were broadcast all over the news. And that is where he failed to keep his feelings to himself, but made them an issue for all the rest of us to deal with.

    • Marvin, I didn’t say racism is a crime; I said it is unethical, and I strongly believe it is. It inevitably affects one’s behavior (it certainly did in Sterling’s case on housing discrimination). I would disagree with your statement that someone is entitled to feel what he feels, arguing that when that the feeling is hateful, based on false assumptions, and used to defend bad behavior, even if just in his own mind. Sterling shared his views because on some level he thought he was right, which is what happens when we don’t open our mind and don’t see the inevitable connection between feelings and actions.

      • I’m old enough to have experienced racism. Before you can correct your racism you have to be willing to observe it in yourself, take it into account, and then make sure it no longer affects your behavior. The hard part for many people was to acknowledge their feelings. If feelings themselves are wrong, then you will invoke denial to defend yourself, rather than working on your own self-correction.

        I think you’d have to ask a black activist of my age, or perhaps a psychologist, to get confirmation of what I’m describing.

        Racism is wrong, but it is human. It is helpful to correct it if possible. But it was programmed into you by the culture that raised you, and it must be acknowledged and accepted as part of you before you can see it and deal with it so that it no longer controls your life.

  2. Pingback: “Talking Ethics” Discusses the Sterling Affair | Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

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