Race to the Top

When the LA Clippers owner chose “Sterling” as his last name, it is clear he didn’t have his character in mind. We can stipulate that his infamous statements were racist and repugnant. Frankly, they were also stupid, in large part unintelligible, such that one can easily conclude that he suffers from a form of dementia. (Judging by the way the franchise has been run for thirty years Clippers fans might assume that dementia beset him long ago.)

Nonetheless, there are a number of troubling aspects about this episode, Sterling’s proposed lifetime ban from the NBA and the forced sale of his team, beyond his foolish and odious comments. For one, it is worrisome the way the right of free speech – which in America once protected even detestable speech – is being whittled down to practical insignificance. Just several weeks ago, the new CEO of Mozilla Firefox was hounded from his position because he opposes same-sex marriage. Apparently, the historically liberal position protecting all forms of speech is waning. As noted here in the past, modern liberal elites, to paraphrase Voltaire, will defend to the death your right to agree with them. If an NBA owner – religious Christian or Jew – publicly advocated traditional marriage (between a man and a woman, if you have forgotten), will that owner also be subject to sanctions and public pillorying?

The correct answer to that question is “not yet,” but we are certainly heading down that road. Of course, there is a difference in kind and degree between opposition to same sex marriage and racism, but clearly the consequences are the same. In some circles the former attitude is unacceptable and akin to racism (so they would have us believe) and in all circles the latter sentiment is offensive. The common denominator, though, is that both men have been stripped of their livelihoods. That can’t bode well for the future, as this will become the new and only acceptable standard for the expression of undesirable speech. (Well, there is another standard as well: the IRS can harass you into silence if your politics offend the authorities.)

From my vantage point, I would much prefer that the marketplace decide a person’s fate for deplorable conduct or speech, along with appropriate social ostracism. If, for example, a storeowner or company were found to be Jew haters, I would cease to patronize that establishment and would expect all decent people to do the same (like all decent people should boycott Firefox). I would not want the government or the society of merchants to pound the offender into submission. Intolerant speakers should also be ostracized socially and feel the scorn of polite society. Let the marketplace, rather than the “man,” ruin the business of a bigot. As such, I am fully supportive of the Clippers sponsors dropping the team, as I would be of fans refusing to attend the team’s games until there was new ownership or players refusing to sign with the team. It just seems a fairer way to repudiate Sterling; let him be forced to sell the team because the revenue stream has dried up, not because the “man” has decided that this individual does not have the right of free speech because he has exercised that right so disgracefully.

It is true that NBA ownership rights are limited by league by-laws, and owners can be sanctioned for conduct detrimental to the league. In a sense, the marketplace in which Sterling conducts his business does control his future. But is private speech “conduct”? Indeed, his public conduct in relation to the team would seem to be fairly conventional – a longtime black general manager (granted, a relationship that did not end well, but, truth be told, Elgin Baylor, great player that he was, was not much of a GM), a black head coach, and mostly black players. In any event, someone who allegedly hates blacks and still buys an NBA franchise makes as much sense as a Jew hater owning a seforim store.

It is also disconcerting that Sterling’s lamentable comments were taped in private and released by a “girlfriend” to the public. For sure, Jews are on permanent notice to watch what we say and what we do: “know what is Above you. There is an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all one’s deeds are recorded in a [Heavenly] book” (Avot 2:1). She, too, is a despicable person, indeed, perfectly matched with her ex-oldmanfriend. There is an expectation of privacy that facilitates normal social and familial relations. When that is breached – and for the worst reasons; she is a gold digger looking to squeeze more money out of him and his family – we all suffer.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if the NBA morals clause for its owners and players considered public adultery a violation as well. One should cringe in reading any sentence that includes the incongruous phrases “his wife,” and “his girlfriend.” That he is a lowlife on multiple counts is clear, but I suspect that applying the morals clause to morality would denude the NBA of many of its owners and players.  But, you might ask, isn’t adultery private conduct? Yes, but so was the racist speech.

Is there a broader lesson here, some deeper message that can resonate and reform the society? No. Hatred is often as inexcusable as it is often bizarre, but it is an emotion that has its proper uses and, like all emotions, cannot be legislated out of the human psyche. Its worst consequences come not through speech but through action, notwithstanding that even hateful speech sullies the society.

Yet, there is also an appalling hypocrisy that should be obvious to all. Sterling was already honored once by the NAACP (he was to be honored again), which doesn’t mean that his remarks were spontaneous and original but that the NAACP – like other race hustlers – routinely extorts money for its leftist political causes and its leadership from whites who donate out of guilt or fear and from white racists looking to purchase respectability. Look no further that the guest-of-honor at the dinner from which Sterling was now banned, one Al Sharpton, one of the primary race hucksters in America today. How does an organization that seeks to be mainstream and reputable honor (well, Sterling, but also) Sharpton, who made his career impugning the character of various white people and provoked a riot in New York City with an anti-Jewish screed that resulted in the death of seven people, even calling the Jewish storeowner in Harlem a “white interloper?” Sharpton led a protest in front of Lubavitch headquarters after Yankel Rosenbaum hy”d was stabbed to death in a black race riot in 1991, crying “No justice, no peace.” Of course, that quest for justice was not for justice for the murdered Jewish yeshiva student, whose confessed murderer was acquitted of homicide by a mostly black jury. Nevertheless, Sharpton has been rehabilitated, is regularly feted by President Obama and is even featured on cable television. It is impossible to imagine a white with identical racist views as those of Sharpton or Jesse Jackson achieving the same sort of mainstream credibility that they possess.

For that matter, how does Charles Barkley get away with calling the NBA a “black league”? Sure, the entertainers are mostly black, but most of the owners, fans, and sponsors are white. The revenue that has created thousands of black millionaires primarily comes from whites. Should that not be acknowledged? (It needs to be said that those black millionaires earn their money fairly, by monetizing their talents and providing a service that people want.)

Racists in America today are outliers and not tolerated in polite society, so Sterling will get his just desserts and warrants no sympathy. For sure, no NBA owner will vote against forcing him to sell or that owner will face the wrath of the public and players. The vote is a foregone conclusion. But peculiar and atypical events such as this one distort the reality of racism in the United States. It is a fringe phenomenon that is kept alive by people who profit from it. When Chief Justice John Roberts had the gall to write in 2007 (in PICS, the last affirmative action case before the Schuette decision two weeks ago) that the best “way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race,” he was roundly condemned by the liberal media and the usual suspects. But those who endorse favorable, special treatment based on race should not be surprised to encounter maltreatment based on race. Both forms of discrimination are absurd. Color of skin, hair, eyes, and the like should play no role in assessing the worth of a human being or in assigning his place in schools or the business world.

We are far from that situation not because racism is prevalent but because too many people benefit from the frequent accusations of racism routinely lodged against, well, anyone, even, for example, opponents of Obamacare. That is not to say that Sterling was motivated by anything more than sheer bigotry, and perhaps the onset of senility, but one thing is obvious: the stridency of his public putdown will pale before the shrillness of the commentariat that will keep this incident in the public eye far longer than it deserves. Of course, the likelihood that Sterling will not go quietly into the night means that he will be a ubiquitous presence in the culture until and even after he is tarred and feathered.

And, as if we didn’t know it already, file this away as further confirmation that there is no correlation between wealth, on the one hand, and intelligence or morality on the other.

23 responses to “Race to the Top

  1. The NBA is a private business, which Sterling damaged. Their response to Sterling was a market driven response. Players were going to boycott, fans were threatening to stop coming to games and sponsors were withdrawing. I don’t understand why this isn’t exactly how things should work. Free speech under the first amendment is a limitation on government, not a private body like the NBA or Mozilla.

    • Yes, but free speech as an American value extends beyond the government. E.g., universities are expected to allow free speech (except for Brandeis), even though they are not the government.
      And, do you really believe the players and fans would boycott the NBA? I doubt that even in the case of the Clippers, much less the rest of the league.
      Americans need sports as a diversion. They therefore tolerate a lot of miscreants as players, not just owners.

      • Thought question:
        A doctor with Sterling views that are shared in private, or a lawyer with similar views: should the doctor’s license to practice medicine be revoked by the state authorities or his peers; should the lawyer be disbarred because a lawyer is obligated to act morally?
        If not, why not?
        Assume, for a moment, that the doctor practices with distinction in an inner city hospital, and the lawyer services minority clients competently.

  2. Rabbi Pruzansky,

    Excellent piece. Your adultery comparison was spot-on.

  3. Excellent commentary.
    I especially appreciated, “her ex-oldmanfriend”, and your comments on adultery.

  4. My favorite part of this article:

    [Al] Sharpton, who made his career impugning the character of various white people and provoked a riot in New York City with an anti-Jewish screed that resulted in the death of seven people, even calling the Jewish storeowner in Harlem a “white interloper?” Sharpton led a protest in front of Lubavitch headquarters after Yankel Rosenbaum hy”d was stabbed to death in a black race riot in 1991, crying “No justice, no peace.”
    Of course, that quest for justice was not for justice for the murdered Jewish yeshiva student, whose confessed murderer was acquitted of homicide by a mostly black jury. Nevertheless, [Al] Sharpton has been rehabilitated, is regularly feted by President Obama and is even featured on cable television. It is impossible to imagine a white with identical racist views as those of [Al] Sharpton or Jesse Jackson achieving the same sort of mainstream credibility that they possess.

  5. Why are the private conversations of one man the major national/international news story for several days (at least according to CNN and TMZ)? Aren’t there enough economic problems and political scandals for the media to report on? Also, apparently, there are no consequences for illegally recording and making public private intimate conversations (which are possibly edited or manipulated). I’m reluctant to defend Sterling, but his now ex-mistress isn’t a married woman, so is it fair to accuse him of adultery?

    • Well, he is married.

      • I realize you were using the term adultery in the American legal or Christian sense. Perhaps you could clarify the Torah definition of adultery?

      • It is a prosecutable crime if the woman is married, regardless of whether or not the man is.
        But it is a sin even if the woman is not married, and certainly a betrayal of the wife.

  6. I remember my father saying, ” there’s no fool like an old fool.”

  7. My impression is that this has little to do with free speech or morality. If Sterling thinks that 75% or so of the players of the league are lesser human beings, then he is probably not suited to be a member of the NBA. Yes, had he been recorded making similar comments about people from Greenland, that would have been equally as offensive, but that would only be grounds to kick him out of a club that comprises a significant number of Greenlanders or where being anti-Greenland completely destroys the potential for the organization to function properly (as does Sterling’s presence to the Clippers and the NBA).

    The issue here is context and meaning. In America, where racism is still a powerful force in our collective memory, these types of comments carry much more weight, as they do in the NBA. If a person at home in America says “I am starving,” it isn’t as bad as making the same comment while on a trip to a third-world country. Although in a vacuum there might be no difference, we don’t live in a vacuum.

    Additionally, the impact of words depends on how they are taken by those involved. Insulting a group of people is bad, but not as bad as insulting the people who work for you – how do you expect them to work for you if you hate them? To then place the burden on the players to ignore or get past Sterlings comments and play for him is not fair; if he was the one who was offensive, he has to live with the impact.

    Granted, this creates problems in terms of definition – how many people need to be insulted? How bad must it be? How do we measure “impact?” Sometimes intuition is enough to decide whether something crosses a threshold- as in this situation.

    In the end, Donald Sterling is not being punished for being immoral (hence, I would not use the analogy to adultery), nor is his freedom of speech being taken away. The NBA is making a statement that someone who has little respect for a large percentage of the players in the NBA does not belong. This is a show of empathy for the players in the league, and most importantly, the current and future players on the Clippers.

    • But deeds should matter more than words. And racism is immoral, so the analogy holds.
      There are also blacks who argue that all whites are racists; if so, perhaps there should be no white owners in the NBA, or as former Knick Larry Johnson said the other day, all the black players should quit and form their own black league.
      Isn’t that also racist?

      • The point I was making is that Donald Sterling is not being punished for immorality, he is being expelled from a group that he should not belong to. The correct analogy would be to an adulterer being removed from the board of directors of the Faithful Husbands Club. I would call that a natural outcome, not a punishment.

  8. Yerachmiel Chaplin

    R’ Pruzansky, perhaps you aren’t too familiar with the NBA (to your credit), but your general comments are off base for two reasons.
    First of all, saying ” I would much prefer that the marketplace decide a person’s fate for deplorable conduct or speech, along with appropriate social ostracism.” The marketplace did dictate Mr. Sterling’s fate. The NBA is a collective of individual owners, but a collective nonetheless. Teams share certain parts of their revenue and the league’s salary cap is set by overall revenue. When advertisers jumped ship from the Clippers, it didn’t just hurt Mr. Sterling, it hurt the NBA as a whole. Mr. Sterling’s actions hurt the NBA as a whole, so the market dictated that the NBA act in such draconian fashion.
    Second, you talk about the right of free speech. The 1st amendment refers only to the government not taking action against hate speech. This is private matter, not a matter of the government. It is important to recognize the difference and let the market, as you suggested, dictate this man’s punishment.
    Finally, you talk about hypocrisy of other individuals giving free passes after promoting hate. But as Kohelet (10:2) says, “a wise person takes the correct path, the foolish one chooses the wrong path.” No matter the circumstances or other people, the fact remains that Mr. Sterling has created a huge chilul Hashem, and we as Yidden should be backing as far away from this man as possible, not looking for opportunity to defend him.

    All things considered, Mr. Sterling will end up making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from being “forced” to sell his basketball team. I can think of worse punishments, ones that he most certainly will endure when his 120 years are up on this Earth.

    • Thank you. I did allude to the marketplace in which he operates as a limitation on his tights, although there is some dispute as to whether or not he can be forced to sell.
      Note also I didn’t refer to the First Amendment or governmental pressure. There is rather a growing tendency for the media and others to attempt to suppress certain offensive speech from some but not from others. I heard one fellow was fired from his job just for suggesting that it was no big deal. That’s worrisome.
      Also, I don’t think Sterling is that identified as a Jew. If so, his general behavior is as contemptible as his speech.

  9. I hope Sterling sells the team to a Saudi (or equivalent), especially one that would require women to be fully covered to attend a game. I’d like to see how the NBA deals sorts out the politically correct response.

  10. Sister Mary

    Amen, Rabbi Pruzansky…Amen!

  11. The NBA, right now, is in standing violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII.) Jointly and severally, every team in the league has hiring practices that have a disparate impact on whites. By current Supreme Court interpretation of the law, it doesn’t matter if blacks are BETTER; as long as there is no bona fide job qualification (BFJQ) that makes it impossible for whites to do it, then they have to be proportionately represented. Obviously whites have the BFJQ’s to play basketball. And yet all NBA teams draft far more black players than whites. Motive is not necessary. This is a textbook violation of the law under current theory. I say this as a practitioner of labor and employment law. I have ran this theory past several law professors and colleagues, who, after thinking about it, conceded I was right.
    Any lawyer want to make some money? Find a white player from a Division I school that wasn’t drafted, and have him be the name plaintiff in a reverse discrimination class action on behalf of all other white draft-eligible players. There may have to be some appeals, but the case will win. At minimum, it will shine a light on the joke of what currently passes for “civil rights” in America today.

    [Everything else the Rabbi said is 100% right, and frankly, he did go not go far enough.]

  12. As an addendum to the above, I just heard at a CLE event yesterday that the whole concept of “disparate impact” will be before the Supreme Court this term. Intressante.

    Should have noted also, as related to the above, that though we hear calls for affirmative action/reverse racism in every sector of the workforce, those calling for it are strangely silent when it comes to professional sports, where the salaries are the highest by far of all American industries. The hypocrisy makes me sick. That so much of the public-school educated electorate is so stupid so as not to even notice, makes it worse. (Of course, no one calling for affirmative action, including judges who allow it to go on, is ever willing to give up his OWN job in the holy name of affirmative action.)