When Daily Trojan Editorial Director Yasmeen Serhan pitched a story about President Barack Obama decrying the racist statements made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling earlier this week, I was reluctant to pick it up. Everyone and their mom (including mine) had an opinion about Donald Sterling’s racist comments at that point, so I felt no need to add to the discussion, and I said that I would sooner eat glass than argue the importance of free speech and right to privacy in Sterling’s case.
Sterling was fined $2.5 million and banned for life from the league by NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. This precludes Sterling from attending any NBA games, meeting with any member of an NBA organization and all league-related activities — but it does not remove him as owner of the team. NBA owners would have to vote in a three-fourths majority to force the Clippers owner to sell the team and — all of a sudden — the right to freedom of speech and an expectation to privacy becomes a salient consideration. So, someone, bring me an empty champagne bottle, a fork and some salt and pepper.
Before we proceed, let’s clear a few things up: Sterling has not acted like an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award recipient (which, despite being denied the award this year, he already received from the Los Angeles chapter of the organization in 2009). Even prior to the release of his recent statements, in 2003, Sterling had been sued by the federal government for discriminatory housing practices. The lawsuit alleged that Sterling had said black tenants “smell and attract vermin,” among other reprehensibly racist things.
Make no mistake about it: Donald Sterling’s attitude has no place in the United States — much less the culturally diverse community of Los Angeles. His statements and his actions were repugnant and completely out of line. But this is the United States of America, land of the free, home of the “say whatever you want as long as you pay me.” And Sterling did: He said the worst possible thing he could say for someone in his position at the worst possible time, and he’s going to pay something to the tune of $2.5 million on top of lost sponsorships and potential revenues if he’s forced to sell.
But — and here we go — Sterling was expecting the conversation to be private. No doubt Sterling’s track record (see: his alleged treatment of former Clippers GM and NBA great Elgin Baylor, the federal housing discrimination lawsuit) points to the actions of an indisputably racist man. But the defense of his view which, according to the extended version of the tape, as being “part of a culture” falls in line with his responses. Sterling’s words were those of an embattled old man, whose paradoxical view of race relations seems to only make sense to the person who holds them. Sterling clearly had tension between his public persona and his private beliefs — and the fact that his private conversation made front page news as a direct result of what he said is disturbing.
What’s interesting about this entire investigation is that the woman in the audio recording didn’t seem to even try to understand what Sterling was saying — instead, she seemed to be goading Sterling into admitting or saying something racially insensitive. According to TMZ (it’s fine, you can go back to reading those three words as a disclaimer now), a friend of the woman in the recording said Sterling knew he was being recorded, and that the woman in the recording refused to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding the contents of the tapes.
The question that remains, however, is why didn’t the woman sign the confidentiality agreement if the intention was to only archive what Sterling said and play it back to him in case he forgot? At whose suggestion did Sterling begin to allow his statements to be recorded? I don’t mean to defend Sterling’s actions here, but clearly Sterling trusted the woman to some extent in order to have his words recorded. That’s why there seems to be an element of opportunism on the part of the woman here, and for these statements to hit the airwaves when the woman in the recording is currently being hit with an embezzlement lawsuit from the Sterling family seems far too timely to be coincidental. For the record, the attorney representing the woman in the recording denied it was his client who released the tape to TMZ.
With the family lawsuit, the leaked tapes and Sterling’s strained marriage, trying to gauge the motivations behind each action, not to mention the mystery behind who exactly released the tapes, only leads to more questions and its own thicket of drama and intrigue.
Regardless, all of these considerations still do nothing to mitigate the actual result: Sterling’s (rather bewildering) private beliefs were made public. So what now? The owners have a huge decision to make. If enough owners don’t vote to force Sterling to sell, it can have disastrous implications on league-wide morale. And yet the same owners have to be wary of what private statements they make can be released to the public, and whether they, too, would be subject to losing out on future revenues as a result of being forced out.
My view on the matter is simple: this was a uniquely egregious case of racism that, in all likelihood, will never be repeated. Unless these owners hold similarly unconscionable beliefs and have a 30-something mistress recording their statements because of their senility (I’m not ruling it out, either), they should jointly vote to force Sterling to sell the Clippers as a show of both solidarity and respect to the black community.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” ran Wednesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Euno at firstname.lastname@example.org.