The Sterling Example

Ladies and gentlemen, hello.

In recent days we have been informed of despicable comments made by a sports team owner about minorities and the outrage is rightfully deserved. But while the public may be morally right, the justice sought is unrealistic, expectations out of whack.  What we have here is a failure to communicate. Or more precisely, we have a failure to understand the social order within the sports industry. As much as in any industry, the economic order = the social order. To demonstrate this, we now have the Sterling Example.

Recently and appallingly, Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers was allegedly caught on tape making overtly racist remarks to his girlfriend, telling her not to bring any more black friends to games among other offensive statements. The media and public response has been swift and unanimous, Donald Sterling should not be allowed to own an NBA franchise. The NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, should revoke Sterling’s franchise and banish him from the league.

Adam Silver has promised a speedy resolution, but there is no way that the punishment will meet the expectations of the public, media, or players. Simply, Donald Sterling is not subject to the sway of public opinion. Contrary to the perception that David Stern (Silver’s predecessor) helped create, the Commissioner has limited powers. The Commissioner has bosses too.

Donald Sterling will face a jury of his peers, but his peers are not part of the general public, media, players, league officials. When it comes to the ownership of the Clippers, the only peers of Donald Sterling are the owners of the the 29 other franchises in the NBA. And they have more to consider than the actual and alleged record of racism owned by Donald Sterling. Above all, they have their own self-interest to consider.

Ultimately, responsibility of the league belongs to the people who own all of the assets of the league. The owners assume the costs of running their franchise as well as the league and they reap the benefits of both. The costs are high, the benefits too. Why does this matter when a fellow owner has crossed a moral line? No owner wants to cede control of their stake in owning a team. And while morally wrong, Donald Sterling is not being accused of criminal activity, not breaking any rules that stipulate a penalty as harsh as being forced to sell the franchise.

When the NBA issues its disappointing press release announcing the light punishment that Sterling will serve, it will be another example of how the only rules in sports that matter are the ones the owners have made up for themselves.


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JB Hacking

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