Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sperling on Sterling: Words, Actions, Consequences, and Overly Dramatic Blog Post Subtitles

The Donald Sterling controversy is kind of growing old and tiresome, but it also kind of isn't.  Take for example that the Clips haven't yet played at home, giving fans a chance to speak out, and also from this morning we have the contrast between the two viewpoints in the links below, both expressed by owners of NBA teams.  Leslie Alexander (Rockets owner) wants maximum league-level pressure applied to Sterling, someone he is associated with (and lumped in with) and has to run a collective business with, and who has tarnished the entire brand.  Meanwhile Mark Cuban (Mavs owner) says that forcing someone to sell (or trying to at least) based on thoughts and private conversations and not actions is a very, very, very slippery slope (his emphasis). 

Cuban is right generally, that personal views, e.g. something like donating to a certain political group, shouldn't be grounds to force someone out (as happened with Mozilla CEO who donated a small sum to anti-gay-marriage group See this OKCupid protest for an interesting treatment I enjoyed and I  endorse http://www.okcupid.com/profile/Aithrobates).  Punishing Sterling's comments is made even more problematic by virtue of the comments having been made in a private conversation.  Cuban is right that one should be able to hold whatever views they wish so long as their public words and deeds are acceptable (...and now we can feel Sterling's less than sterling public record creep in, and it probably should).  Any other policy leaves open a massive door for injustice anyone applying/enforcing the policy will be tempted to step through.  If MLK secretly held racist beliefs and Nixon secretly loved the Vietnamese, so be it, the history of their public words and actions will stand.

So Cuban makes some compelling points, but, Cuban's case for tolerating intolerance is conveniently ignoring that Sterling’s actions did have business consequences, unexpected consequences (again, it was a private conversation), but not unforeseeable or intangible consequences. Comm. Silver and the NBAs other lawyers will likely emphasize clear harm to the NBA brand and the owners' legitimate interests being negatively impacted by what's happened.  Sterling's comments were private, but he took whatever risk of them leaking he was willing to take, and they did emerge into the public record.  That all makes a great deal of sense to me too.

I am personally torn here in terms of my "armchair commissioner" ruling.  This one’s really tough, and the stakes are high.  I'm curious as to A) How would you rule within the Commish’s powers (outlined here http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/10852199/challenge-donald-sterling)?  B) What is the right outcome despite whatever procedural handcuffs or political considerations impact the Commish, if you were in charge of who got to keep their job or their sports team?

(UPDATE: After I wrote this piece, Comm. Silver came down with a lifetime ban and $2.5M fine for Sterling.  Only the other owners can vote to force a sale, so it seems we have Silver's/TheNBA's take on what the max they could do is).

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