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.