Sunday, May 04, 2014

My Sunday Feeling

Even those who are but dimly aware of the existence of the National Basketball Association are bound to be cognizant of the controversy surrounding certain inelegant remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling about about blacks in general and Magic Johnson in particular that a female associate named V. Stiviano recorded and leaked to the tabloid TMZ.  ( Let's leave her title as "associate" for no other reason than the exact outer-perimeter of the extent of her relationship with Mr. Sterling remains murky even as of this writing.) 

As is now known, Sterling was recorded telling Ms. Stiviano to quit hanging out with so many black guys.  A selfie taken by her with she and Magic Johnson was found particularly objectionable by Sterling.  And he told her so in no uncertain terms.

And so last Tuesday NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and the Clippers.  He was also fined 2.5 million dollars.  (Collecting that might be a trick under the circumstances.)

Let's do the backstory on Sterling.  He started out as a Plaintiff's lawyer doing divorce and PI work in Los Angeles.  He invested heavily in commercial real estate where he made his fortune as a classical "buy and hold" investor.  In 1981 he bought the San Diego Clippers which he moved to Los Angeles apparently in order to run the franchise into the ground in a more prominent location.  

And make no mistake about it, up until fairly recently, the Clippers were the joke of the NBA.  Indeed, one can make the case that the Clippers, for the vast majority of their existence, were the worst franchise in the history of sports.  And yes, I am aware that this closed universe of misery and incompetence contains the Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Dodgers under the McCourts, the Buffalo Bills, perennial favorite Chicago Cubs and, most recently, the New York Knicks.  

As if this were not sufficient embarrassment to the league, Sterling is no stranger to the court system.  He has been sued for housing discrimination.  He has been sued for sexual harassment.  He was sued by former coaches Elgin Baylor (Elgin Baylor!) Bill Fitch, Bob Weiss and Mike Dunleavy.  

So suffice it so say that when Sterling's provocative views on racial matters made the light of day,it may be safely observed that he didn't have a lot of goodwill in the tank to fall back on.  

And yet, there have been some who have raised questions about the fairness of the action taken by the NBA.  After all, this was a private conversation that was perhaps illegally recorded under California law.  There has been some questions raised about whether the NBA's actions violate Sterling's rights of free-speech.  Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban worried about this creating a "slippery slope" where owner's could be penalized for speaking their minds, an outcome well-known to the oft-fined Mr. Cuban.  Rush Limbaugh spun a conspiracy out of whole cloth wherein he imagined a plot on the part of-guess who?-Magic Johnson to wrest control of the Clips from Sterling.  Predictably, Tea Party darling Allen West weighed in on the matter.  And predictably, he got it completely wrong in wondering whether "where being a jerk is grounds for confiscation of property."

As I like to say at such times, this is an opportunity to teach.  

Except for circumstances not presently before us, only the government can violate your rights.  Only the government can confiscate property.  The NBA Constitution allows an owner to be kicked out after a 2/3 vote of the other owners.  It also allows the Commissioner to act in the best interests of the sport (basically) in areas not covered by said Constitution.  This is a private action taken by basically a private club which is seeking to expel one of its members.  

I wouldn't be surprised if the litigious Mr. Sterling sues to block this action (although the NBA Constitution forbids it).  Maybe he can sue Ms. Stiviano for defamation (good luck) or for violating his rights under California law.  But make no mistake about it, the NBA's action against Sterling doesn't violate his "right to free speech" under the United States Constitution.  And neither has his property been "confiscated."

And speaking of which, if Sterling is forced to sell, he stands to turn a profit of about a half a billion dollars according to some experts.  If anybody out there wants to "confiscate" me to that extent they are welcome to come on.  

But does the fact that Donald Sterling faces such a harsh penalty over a private conversation bother me?  Yeah.  A little.  But what was the NBA supposed to do?  Sponsors were bailing.  Boycotts and rallies were being cooked up over this.  The players union was apoplectic.  And as for the Clippers themselves, Head Coach Doc Rivers described his team, even the two white players, as "pissed." And the biggest impediment to their progression through the playoffs was the guy that signed the checks.

Clearly swift action had to be taken.  It wasn't like they caught Frank Vogel or Greg Popovich inexplicably saying these things on tape.  It was Donald Sterling.  The man who had no goodwill in the tank to sustain him when a lifetime of odious conduct finally caught up with him and took a big chunk out of his ass.  

After all, did you hear a single soul express surprise that Donald Sterling was capable of such venom?  No, you did not.  Not a single soul.  

Which tells you pretty much all you need to know.

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