I want to offer a few thoughts on the L’Affair de Donald. I only just this morning got a chance to listen to the recorded conversation that apparently took place between L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his girlfriend V. Stiviano, as reported by TMZ. In the absence of any denials from Sterling’s representatives the veracity question seems to be resolved. The only remaining open question is whether Sterling could reasonably expect privacy over an argument with his girlfriend, which hinges on his complicity in the conversation’s recording. (TMZ is reporting that Sterling was fully complicit.) I cannot imagine that if one is aware of being recorded that even so-called “pillow talk” would come with an expectation of privacy. His expectations don’t and probably shouldn’t matter at a whit to the public, but likely matter a great deal to how the NBA and NBAPA will proceed.
If you’ve not had a chance to listen to the conversation I would suggest you do so. If you begin with the premise that all lives feature contested social positions and contradictions, and that what’s interesting is how we manage those contradictions, then this is a fascinating listen. There is some serious contradiction management going on in this thing. Wow. Someday, an intersectionality scholar will conduct a close reading on these tapes and will simultaneously drown, burst into flame, while his or her head implodes. Hell, I may be that scholar.
At the risk of burying the lede, allow me to start with my conclusion. The real crime here will be if the good people at Saturday Night Live and/or Drunk History simply sit back and allow this moment to go unparodied. If they fail to get the TMZ transcripts and give them the full-on Thomas Jefferson/Sallie Hemming treatment they so richly deserve then we the people will be impoverished for it.
On a mildly more serious note, I do want to respond to some of the issues that have emerged in media coverage and public discussion over the past weekend.
What Rights Do Owner Have to Say and Do As They Please? I have not heard anyone ask this question directly, but plenty have hinted at it. The question mostly comes up when powerful people are publicly shamed for a “let them eat cake” moment. A strict libertarian response to the question would be that as long as Sterling’s actions are lawful and ethical, his attitudes are a non-issue for the league. The league can and perhaps should do nothing, lest it institute an ideological litmus test that many other owners might also fail. In fact, Sterling’s rambling and barely coherent point is that his his desire for high social distance from Black masculinity–his desire for exotic Black femininity notwithstanding–represents the mainstream among those in his social milieu. (Hell, that’s why his friends told him about who was on Stiviano’s Instagram in the first place.) If the league throws Sterling out on those grounds, a whole lot of people might have to go with him if there is to be any consistency at all. Besides, the argument goes, people are free to choose. If they don’t care for Sterling’s attitudes they don’t have to go to the games–or they can go and boo to their throats are sore. Likewise, coaches and free agents can choose to sign with the Clippers of their own volition.
Although I am purposefully stripping the argument of nuance, there isn’t much nuance to strip from a strict libertarian reading. It pits property rights (and speech as an extension of those rights) against other kinds of concerns. The argument is not without its merits. Owners have and do engage in their own business, civic, and personal interests outside the scope of league business. However, a strict libertarian reading is a difficult one in a joint venture like the NBA, where franchise owners agree to a covenantal relationship governed by league bylaws and a commissioner with wide latitude to act in the league’s best interests. The league’s members rightly have an expectation that owners’ private activities do not unduly impact the logo, whose value is derived interdependently from among the franchises. So, that the league can respond seems like “settled law”. What actions trigger a response, and then what response, seem more like the pertinent issues. Doing nothing is probably not an option now. A franchise owner cannot just dis a segment of the paying public, not to mention an NBA icon, and expect that the league will do nothing.
To Protest or Not to Protest? Certainly, if the league proceeds (as it clearly intends to) it will treat this as a “best interests” matter. Many have also called for the players to take a public stand, regardless of what the league does. That includes players refusing to play. I am not here to say what any player should do, apart from what their respective consciences and politics dictate. I do however agree wholeheartedly with sentiment expressed by Jalen Rose (whose insights I have generally come to enjoy in the studio). This is a league-wide issue that calls for institutional rather than strictly personal responses from the league and from the Players Association. Clippers players should be free to do what conscience dictates, but It cannot only be about the Clippers.
For the Players Association this moment is broadly about the quality of their respective work environments rather than simply chastising a bigoted owner. I hope and expect the NBAPA to make more than the national media of Sterling’s remarks about how he “gives players food, clothing, and cars.” Those are in many critical respects far more disturbing than his wholly unremarkable race prejudice, and who he deems appropriate company at “his” games. The remarks are substantively similar to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s post-Decision how-dare-he-quit-me rant about LeBron James. This NBA franchise-as-charity metaphor is not a good look. NBA franchises are not charities. They work in partnership with the players, whose compensation they collectively bargain. And regardless, even if NBA franchises were charities, who has bilked the NBA out of more than Donald Sterling? He bilked luxury tax paying teams out of several million per annum for years. His history is that of a net taker. Not a net giver.
What is to be Done? Jerry Colangelo said on Mike & Mike this morning that Sterling had a “rap sheet” that the owners find embarrassing. I think it is fairly safe to say that Colangelo is speaking on behalf of at least a significant subset of NBA owners, who presumably are expected to cede any public comments to the commissioner (and rightfully so). Colangelo’s appearance and candor suggest to me that important people have reached the, “Okay. You’re messing with my money now” breaking point with Donald Sterling.
When someone like Colangelo comes on to do damage control for the owners and then throws salt that’s a strong suggestion that something will get done. Were I commissioner Silver, here’s what I’d look into doing.
(1) Removal from any league committees indefinitely — Sterling should have no hand in setting policy or conducting the business of the league.
(2) Forfeiture of league TV revenues for at least one season — I do not believe Sterling could be forced to sell the team, short of actions directly detrimental to the business interests of the franchise and/or league. Sports franchise ownership is a difficult club to join. I cannot imagine that it’s easy to be thrown out once inside. That kind of structure encourages palace coups, and no one wants that. I would think you’d have to be caught red-handed doing damage to the group. However, it also seems to me that punishments for bad behavior are likely less bound by precedent. The most effective should combine revenue forfeiture with isolation. For that reason I would consider direct forfeiture (or fines equal to) Sterling’s share of the funds from the national TV contract.