Clippers owner Sterling banned from NBA for life — four lessons

The controversy that swallowed all other news, like a dying, angry sun, continues to burn. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has now issued a lifetime ban on Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught on tape making a cornucopia of racist statements to his girlfriend V. Stiviano.

This has offered a couple of lessons:

1) Nobody ever thinks that he is racist.

If you ever needed proof, this is it.

Even when you have a lifelong record of actually taking your racism out into the world and harming people with it, not just being an Old Man Ranting In The Privacy of His Own Home, you still get offended when people suggest you might be racist. On the infamous recording of the conversation, Sterling even states, “There’s no racism here.” Just a moment after he was insisting that you should not bring black people to his games! Nobody thinks of himself as racist, just as nobody thinks of himself as smelly or his kids as ugly.

2) People are still unclear on the definition of free speech.

Free speech is not consequence-free speech. Nowhere is it said that “You get to say whatever you want and people are required to still like you and consider you a fit member of the NBA.” When they were throwing the Bill of Rights together, the Founders never thought of adding, “And you get to keep your reality TV show and your ownership position, no matter what.”

(And here’s a relevant XKCD, as always.)

3) Another funny thing about this is everyone’s impulse to Boycott Something. “Oh no!” people say. “We have discovered that someone is terrible! We must do something to stop him!”

Maybe it’s just the Twitterati who feel this impulse, whenever someone makes an Awful Statement That Must Be Punished. “We are the Internet,” they bellow, “and we must DO something.” But how do you show Donald Sterling you disapprove without punishing his team and denting their brands? It’s clearly not their fault. How can you show the cash register that you did not purchase that Chris Paul jersey NOT because Chris Paul has personally disappointed you, but because you just don’t want to send any more of your money upstream? How do you parse this? “I wish someone had made a Donald Sterling Is Great And Just The Coolest t-shirt,” you mumble to yourself, “whose profits went directly to him and him alone, so that I could very aggressively NOT buy it.” But it’s never that easy.

It’s abundantly clear in this case that this isn’t a whole racist organization. It’s one man — although one very powerful man . The Clippers squad protested Sterling’s comments by wearing their jerseys inside out.

So where do you go to boo? That’s one of the problems with this desire to Change Your Habits based on whether you approve or disapprove of the people behind brands you otherwise like. It is hard to aim your ire correctly.

So maybe this offers an occasion to rethink this urge to rush out and boycott. In the mean time, it’s nice to hear all the applause for the NBA, who were able to punish Sterling directly in a way not available to most of us indignant bystanders and send a clear message: We won’t stand for this sort of thing.

4) Then again, it is so easy when people walk out and say, “Hello there, I am overtly racist.”

If only overt old-man racism were the only problem. But it’s so often more insidious than that. If only ugly thoughts always came along dressed up so clearly. That would be so much simpler.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | April 30