As you may have heard, Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA. The 29 other owners in the NBA voiced their support for expelling the longtime laughingstock/owner and Commissioner Adam Silver held a stern press conference giving the good word.
However, prior to the heartwarming news, Mark Cuban sounded some displeasure at the thought of taking someone’s team away because they said a few racist things:
“But regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we’re taking something somebody said in their home and we’re trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that’s not the United States of America. I don’t want to be part of that.”
Cuban also gave the tried-and-true slippery slope argument:
“I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”
What’s unfortunate here is that Cuban fails to recognize another, more relevant slippery slope. It’s the slippery slope from someone’s thoughts to their words to their deeds. Indeed, the idea that racism merely spoken behind closed doors is unworthy of punishment is how the Sterlings of the world can thrive. So long as your malicious thoughts stay at home (and magically never manifest as actions) you’re good to play a leading, public role in society.
The United States of America, at least in theory, has for nearly 150 years rejected the idea that racism is acceptable at public venues. In 1875, the Congress passed a Civil Rights Act which stated, in part:
All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement
That Act concluded by explicitly stating “race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude [enslavement]” could not be used as excuses to deprive Americans of access to places of public amusement. Someone declaring racist sentiments at the very least raises a red flag in light of this law, whether they run a movie theater, a bowling alley, or an NBA franchise.
In 1964, the Congress again passed a Civil Rights Act (this one was actually enforced and was far more vigorous). This updated law expressly stated “motion picture house[s], theater[s], concert hall[s], sports arena[s], stadium[s] or other place[s] of exhibition or entertainment” were included for protection. No person under the jurisdiction of the United States could be deprived access to these venues.
Mark Cuban may wish that all property is sacrosanct, but entertainment based property is not. The NBA as an entertainment venture squarely falls into the purview of the Civil Rights Acts and their spirit. The laws of the United States hold men like Donald Sterling (no matter how foolish and stupid) to a higher standard than some bigot on the street corner.
Sterling’s private musings to his mistress that she not bring black people to Los Angeles Clippers games defies the anti-racist objectives of the laws of the United States. Once revealed and confirmed, those statements deprive him of the privilege of maintaining an entertainment franchise.
Now, would a court of law actually confiscate Sterling’s Clippers team based on this? Nah. The anti-racism statutes of this country are balanced by anti-trust statutes and other laws. It’s not a vacuum.
Sterling would likely be warned to clean up his act or, after years of litigation, given a symbolic fine. That’s what happened in his housing discrimination suit, after all. And that had far more concrete malicious consequences.
But what backed Sterling into a corner is the NBA’s Constitution which allows the owners to eject one of their members if their behavior is harmful to the league. The housing discrimination did not involve the NBA, so the other owners could take the moral low ground at the time and ignore the situation.
This latest round of racism directly involved the league and its legal duty to make itself non-discriminatory. Silver and company had a moral obligation to punish Sterling, and they’ve apparently decided to banish him from their ranks. This doesn’t make up for the inaction of the past, but it is a welcomed result nonetheless.
Hopefully he’ll officially vote to oust Sterling, but in the slippery slope fantasy Cuban espoused we wait forever and a day to expel Sterling.