When Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Cut It
by Eliza Scharfstein on Friday, May 16th, 2014
Led by former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers are in the second round of the NBA playoffs, vying for the franchise’s first championship. The team has received much attention recently for its play on the court. The team’s success on the hardwood, unfortunately, has been overshadowed by a shocking, off-the-court story. A few weeks ago, a source released a tape recording of owner Donald Sterling saying extremely racist comments to his girlfriend at the time, V. Stiviano. The recording is of a ten-minute conversation—featuring a plethora of horrifically offensive statements by Sterling— centered around Stiviano’s posting of a picture with Laker legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Sterling stated, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” (TMZ Sports, 4/25/14 ) The recording raised widespread national outrage and received a great deal of media attention.
The NBA, including its teams and commissioners, quickly responded after the news came out. Adam Silver, the league’s new commissioner, promptly decided to ban Sterling from the NBA and fine him $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed by the NBA Constitution; executives of the other 29 NBA teams respected and agreed with this decision. The Clippers themselves issued a statement saying, “We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver today. Now, the healing process begins.” (USA Today Sports, 4/29/14) Fans and players alike agreed that this decision was an appropriate one. The NBA is now in the process of organizing a vote among team owners. A two-thirds majority would force Sterling to sell the Clippers — a result that would appease the many NBA players, fans, and organizations outraged by this incident.
Obviously, the remarks made by Sterling were discriminatory and frankly unacceptable, but the question arises—what about freedom of speech? What about the right to privacy? Well, I along with many others, feel that Sterling’s rights have not been violated. Why do I believe that the NBA had every justification and every duty to take actions as they did?
Firstly, I would like to clarify something important: freedom of speech does not mean that individuals have the right to discriminate against others. In a recording recently released by RadarOnline.com, Sterling said, “Am I a person? Do I have any freedom of speech?” (5/9/14, NY Daily News) Yes, Sterling does have the right to speak his mind. If the NBA believes, however, that the values of an affiliated person do not coincide with the values of the organization, it has every right to ‘fire’ him. This is not the first instance of controversial remarks made by Sterling; the owner has, on multiple accounts, been accused of racism, according to a April 29th report by Sport’s Illustrated. Sterling’s responsibility, as the owner of a respected team with a diverse group of supporters, is to be respectful not only of his players and fans, but also of their identities. Representatives of the Orlando Magic basketball team put the situation especially eloquently: “The Orlando Magic feel the recent reprehensible comments by Donald Sterling were absolutely unacceptable and do not reflect the values and beliefs of our organization or our league.” (USA Today Sports, 4/29/14) Sterling is a part of a broader community with a strong moral backbone. He should have the responsibility, sense, and professionalism to adhere to these values.
What about Sterling’s privacy? Did the NBA have the right to act on private information? Sure, a personal conversation was leaked; however, the NBA was simply the recipient of the information, and it responded in a manner that effectively upheld the integrity of the organization. Sterling also said in a recent RadarOnline.com interview, “I know I’m wrong. What I said was wrong. But I never thought the private conversation would go anywhere, out to the public.” (5/9/14, NY Daily News) Despite Sterling’s apology, his actions have spoken for him. Sterling said what he said, and the NBA needed to react in a way that accentuated the fact that his behavior—in private or in public—was not acceptable.
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