Occasionally I like to write about the corrupt business of sports, including basketball , and today that means the need to discuss the recent unprecedented punishment of Clippers owner Donald Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban from involvement with his own team as a result of some apparently ill-advised private conversations that were leaked to nearly universal derision. There are a lot of aspects of this particular case that I find deeply troubling and corrupt, not to say hypocritical, and I think that this particular situation is part of a growing and widespread tendency that is deeply lamentable and ominous when it comes to the freedom either to speak lamentable private follies or, more seriously, deeply unpopular truths. Though Sterling is not the sort of man I would like to defend, he really is being railroaded here.
First of all, let us look at what Sterling was said to have said. Based on reports by TMZ , Sterling said the following in a private conversation to his mixed-race girlfriend: “Speaking to his mixed race girlfriend, Sterling said “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.” And also “I’m just saying, in your lousy f******* Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.” And also “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.” In many ways, this particular set of statements is deeply immoral, encouraging his girlfriend to cheat on him, as well as be hypocritical by hanging out with people but not be open and public about that (hardly behavior I would wish to encourage of anyone). besides being racist. Besides, as a man whose ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers involves being around a lot of black employees and being around a lot of fans, it is a stunningly stupid thing to say.
That said, as unwise and wicked a thing as it is to say, it was also said in privacy. There are few people whose speech is entirely blameless in public, much less in private. Every one of us has our own private follies, and most of us would be intensely embarrassed to have those private follies not only be the subject of general (or nearly universal) gossip and ridicule, but also the subject of serious sanction, especially in the avoidance of any actual legal wrongdoing. Considering the way that people get slaps on the hand for vastly more serious crimes, it would appear as if politics play a far larger role in discipline than right and wrong, something that is greatly troubling when one considers the fact that our course political discourse involves a great deal of immoral speech that could with equal justice lead to sanctions for many, if people were so inclined. One is reminded of the toxic atmosphere of Thailand or ancient Rome with the ready trials (whether in the court of public opinion or official discipline) for speech without any actual intent or desire to harm others, merely to protect insecure authorities.
Even more troubling is the fact that the only person who appears to be suffering for this is an old racist gentleman who has long owned a team without any real desire of actually helping them improve. Now that his team appears to be doing fairly well, a consistent playoff contender in recent years, and having benefited from previous corruption (the forced trade of Chris Paul III to the Clippers instead of to the Los Angeles Lakers), he himself suffers from the backhanded nature of that corruption, having run afoul in a political game. If Sterling had been punished for his years as a terrible owner, that would at least be a worthwhile issue. The young lady who apparently leaked his private conversation and turned it into a public scandal apparently has not suffered any ill results of her lack of character and integrity, nor have the people who have engaged in spreading these nasty comments. In our times, it is not immoral to spy on others, not immoral to betray confidences, but it is deeply immoral to say anything that is politically incorrect. This is a deeply unwise policy, not least because so much is said about men and whites and Christians that is deeply immoral to a vastly greater degree than what Sterling said, not to mention that which is actually done to others.
Yet while it is easy to take a lot of potshots at Sterling for what he has done, there is a very dark place where this sort of witch hunt easily goes. It is strikingly ironic that those who have sought to trumpet the loudest and the longest the memory of Red Scares and lynch mobs would so easily engage in rhetorical witch hunts and lynch mobs of their own when they of all people ought to understand the deepest the cutting nature of hate speech. When overreacting is the standard response to episodes like this one, it is not too long before any ruling authority seeks to preserve its hold to power and influence in an atmosphere of contempt by demonizing speech it does not like. It is not a good precedent to respond to foolish speech with lifetime bans and massive fines, because that is a precedent that could very easily backfire on many of those people who are squawking the loudest about their revulsion at Sterling’s speech today. What began as a moment of private folly can easily become a precedent that can be used to prevent any of us from speaking deeply unpopular truths for fear of harsh retribution, and we would all be far worse off for that.
 See, for example: