Just over a month ago, TMZ released an audio recording of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making a series of racist remarks to his apparent girlfriend, V. Stiviano. While Sterling had a history of racially-tinged baggage stretching back decades that was familiar to close followers of the NBA, the shock of listening to a public figure in 2014 demand that his girlfriend not associate with black people in public reverberated across social media, online media, newspapers and television. The resulting fury even got CNN to interrupt its chartered mission of covering the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370. Within days, newly anointed NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference at which he announced that he was banning Sterling from the NBA for life, and would move to have Sterling’s franchise terminated. Late last week, the NBA announced that Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly, had agreed to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion, avoiding the franchise termination hearing that was to be held tomorrow.
While Donald Sterling has announced plans to sue the NBA in keeping with his litigious reputation, most commentators and legal experts seem to agree that he does not have a legal leg to stand on. The reason being that last month Sterling was evaluated by a set of neurologists who determined that Sterling has dementia, and is no longer fit to make decisions involving the Sterling Family Trust, which holds the Clippers. Per the rules of the trust, Donald has been totally cut out of decision making, leaving Shelly fully empowered to sell the franchise. And because she sold the franchise without termination proceedings, none of the NBA’s creative interpretations of its own constitution have to be tested.
For the National Basketball Association and its fans, this is a very happy occasion. Sterling was an embarrassment for the league for over 30 years, violating the bounds of propriety in both his basketball and personal business dealings. To replace the consensus “worst owner in sports” with Steve Ballmer is nothing short of a total coup.
For the rest of the media, and the public, that joined in the escalating fury to denounce what they heard on that audio recording, however, the precise mechanism of Donald Sterling’s removal raises more unsettling questions. If the rambling, paranoid man heard on TMZ’s recording was truly demented, had begun to lose touch with reality, does our rush to outrage become a little less righteous? Sterling is reported to be suffering from prostate cancer, and according to once source was expected to die two years ago.
As a fan of the NBA, I had been aware of Sterling’s history of racist comments in public and private, his settling of the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in history, and most of the varieties of Sterling’s debased character. I considered his punishment just as a lifetime achievement award, fitting to a body of disgraceful work that the audio merely served to bring together in the public eye in a culminating shame. But for the many, many millions more whose first exposure to Donald T. Sterling came in late April of this year, the question needs to be asked: how do we evaluate the private words of a dying, demented man when they are released for public consumption?
Because the sentiments expressed on the recording are essentially consistent with what we know of Sterling’s past character, not too many tears need to be shed for any injustice done to him personally. But as recording devices and dementia rates grow in tandem, one cannot expect this to be the last elderly person of prominence to have outrageous comments leaked to the public when they themselves are not in their right mind. And next time, the target may not have a lifetime of villainy to protect us from our haste.