Adam Silver, the National Basketball Association’s new commissioner, has conjured a hysterical response to the alleged comments of Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise. He has banned Mr. Sterling for life, and fined him $2.5 million, which for a billionaire is, well, do the math.
Mr. Sterling’s ex-girlfriend released a recording she made of a confidential conversation the two of them had in which Mr. Sterling urged her not to show up at Clipper’s basketball games with black guys, specifically naming Magic Johnson, and not to post pictures of herself with black guys on Instagram.
Oh, the horror.
He didn’t even do a Paula Dean, and refer to the people he didn’t want his ex-girlfriend to be seen in public with by the word that must not be spoken. It is a word that is not even allowable in a Mark Twain novel striving for accurately depicting the vernacular of the time in which it was set. The word may only be used by those whom it once described. “Niggar” or “niggah” is nothing but a slightly altered Spanish “negra”, meaning black. But it can’t be spoken. And probably can’t be written. At least not by white people, and certainly not by Jewish people, the racial heritage of Mr. Sterling, if Jewishness denotes a race. And there is no evidence or allegation that Mr. Sterling used it. He just expressed the sentiment that the word had been used to express about blacks, particularly during the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when it became a pejorative, where it had at one time simply been a descriptive name, and before victory in the struggle meant blacks had to be called African American or any other damned thing they wanted to be called by people of pallor, because only they could call themselves niggahs or niggars or whatever the rappers decided. It was a black thang, see?
Blacks take pride in this thang that is unique to them. They intentionally set themselves apart with it. But they don’t allow anyone who is not part of their thang to offer an opinion of it. Anyone who does is immediately branded a racist, which is, in polite society these days, roughly tantamount to being branded a heretic during the Spanish Inquisition, or a witch in Salem in the eighteenth century.
But what does it mean for Mr. Sterling to be ‘banned for life’ from the NBA? It sounds like a particularly dreadful excommunication of the sort, perhaps, that Baruch Spinoza suffered from his Jewish community in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. The letter directing Spinoza’s excommunication required his fellow Jews to cross the other side of the street when they saw him coming. But an excommunication from the NBA, as if the league were some sort of religion? And of one of its owners? I wonder, will the NBA allow Mr. Sterling to keep signing the Clipper’s paychecks? Will they allow him to communicate with his new coach and general manager, Doc Rivers, who, by the way, is black. Will they allow him to continue to hire and fire staff as he sees fit? What exactly can they ban him from doing? Would banning Mr. Sterling be tantamount to banning the Clippers’ franchise? It seems that must be the case if the ban is going to have any real effect, which would mean that the NBA’s attempt to punish a racist in its ranks of owners would put a bunch of black people out of work.
No, the ban is all for show. It is my understanding that the NBA bylaws allow the owners to force the sale of a franchise on a three-quarters vote, so that might eventually happen. And Mr. Sterling can be nice and agree to not show his face at his team’s games. But in the meantime, the NBA can’t ban him from interacting with his team as the team’s owner or from doing things that owners ordinarily do, like pay players and coaches, and negotiate arena contracts, and have promotions, and a litany of other stuff that no one sees.
What does this episode tell us?
First, that policing thoughts is an exercise in futility. Mr. Sterling is not accused of doing anything to anyone in the employ of the Clippers to express his racial bigotry. He expressed some racially bigoted thoughts, in confidence, to an ex-girlfriend. The NBA’s attempt to punish the racist thoughts of one of its owners is necessarily wildly disproportionate to the crime, mainly because no crime has been committed. Thus, the NBA decrees a lifetime ban, which sounds extreme but is really just an attempt to look extreme and upset and hysterical, just like the fans and players are pretending to be. There is no legally actionable injury here. Not financial, emotional, physical—nothing. People may be outraged but whining about hurt feelings is part of the luxury of living in a society so rich that it pays young men many millions of dollars each year to engage in playground sport. The law has yet to institute public floggings or scarlet letters for revealed racists because thinking racist thoughts is still not illegal. Even expressing racist thoughts isn’t illegal, so long as doing so doesn’t cause a riot.
Anytime an organization is faced with preventing the unpreventable, it will want to look as if it is doing all it can to do so anyway, which is to say, it will want to look it is acting as outrageously as the thing being prevented is perceived. This explains the NBA’s response to Sterling just like it explains the US’s response to terrorism. The US shredded its Constitution so that it might look like it was preventing terrorism from ever happening again. The NBA pretended it could ban one of its owners, as if the NBA isn’t an organization in the employ of the owners.
But the better life lesson to draw from this episode antedates by centuries the present prohibition against expressing racist sentiments. That is that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Sterling’s ex-girlfriend taped their private conversation, undoubtedly for the purpose of baiting him into his racist slurs. And then sold the tape to TMZ, a sleazy webloid.
Fellas, listen up. Never ever say anything to a woman who is your ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, or who may become your ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, that you don’t want the whole world to hear. Because she will tell the whole world, and may even tape the conversation to provide proof, if she believes doing so will give her an upper hand in the relationship.
Other than those few tidbits, there’s nothing to learn here except that the fact so much outrage has been expressed over something as benign as Sterling’s remarks, which were not intended for public consumption, proves that we live in a fantastically wealthy, and commensurately silly, age.