Donald Sterling's lifetime NBA ban sparks invasion of privacy debate
Christina Commisso, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, April 30, 2014 10:54AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 30, 2014 12:12PM EDT
The NBA's ruling to ban Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling from the league for life has been applauded by fans, athletes and fellow NBA team owners.
But the landmark ruling has also raised questions regarding an invasion of Sterling's privacy and whether it sets a dangerous precedent.
Racist remarks made by the 80-year-old billionaire during a private conversation, which were secretly recorded and leaked to gossip website TMZ, are what prompted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to hand down one of the harshest penalties in the history of U.S. sports.
The leaked conversation wasn’t the first time Sterling’s been accused of exhibiting discriminatory behaviour.
Racist remarks against minorities prompted a 2006 housing discrimination lawsuit that led to a reported $2.765 million payout.
Then in 2009, former NBA player and Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for racial discrimination, claiming that he envisioned a "Southern Plantation type structure" for the Clippers.
However, it was his views shared in private that prompted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday to ban Sterling for life from the NBA, along with a $2.5-million fine.
Canadian employment lawyer Howard Levitt says Sterling’s comments are clearly cause for discipline, despite the fact he made them in private.
"Anything an executive does who's in a public position, whose reputation impacts the company, who has done something fundamentally antithetical to the role -- we're talking about a guy with black players, black coaches, black sponsors, black fans -- it will be ruinous to the company he works for," Levitt told CTVNews.ca.
"Even if it's a secret comment that comes out publically, it's cause and it doesn't matter if it’s secretly recorded."
Levitt said in Canada and the U.S. a representative of a company cannot say something that "damages the brand" without ramifications.
"He may have all the freedom of speech he wants, no one is saying he can't say it. No one is going to sue him for saying it," Levitt said. "The question we're posing is can he be fired as an employee for it? And the answer to that is yes."
Before Silver's landmark ruling was announced, NBA legend and former Clippers' assistant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised the privacy issue in a TIME magazine opinion piece.
While he maintains that "racists deserve to be paraded around the modern town square of the television screen," Abdul-Jabbar argues that the fact his private, intimate conversation was taped and leaked to the media is also appalling.
"Didn't we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way?" the former NBA all-star writes. "The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn't steal the cake but we're all gorging ourselves on it."
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby described Sterling's racist remarks as hateful, but said the most alarming part of the scandal is the "rapidly disappearing presumption that things we say in our personal lives will stay personal."
Meanwhile, ESPN's Jason Whitlock described the sanctions imposed on Sterling as a case of "mob rule."
"Removing Donald Sterling from the NBA solves nothing," he writes. "It sets a precedent that will likely boomerang and harm the black players and coaches who are shocked and outraged that an 80-year-old man with a documented history of bigoted actions also has bigoted private thoughts."
Fellow NBA owner Mark Cuban applauded the NBA's ruling, tweeting on Tuesday that he agrees "100 per cent with Commissioner Silver's findings."
But one day earlier he commented that "In this country, people are allowed to be morons,” and forcing owners to sell teams based on comments made in private could lead to a "very slippery slope."
A number of NBA owners were onboard with Silver's decision, including Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and Portland Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen.
Silver has encouraged the NBA board of governors to vote to terminate Sterling's ownership, which would force him to sell the team. It would require a three-fourths majority vote to force a sale.