Mark Glassman is a journalist and sports fan based in New York.
There aren’t a lot of ways to punish people in professional sports. You can penalize them within a game. You can fine them. You can eject them or hold them out a few games. And if things get as ugly as they did with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, you can tell them they can’t ever be part of the game again.
Lifetime bans in American pro sports have been extremely rare. Even so-called permanent bans usually allow for reinstatement down the line. Of all the notorious rule-breakers over the years, only a tiny fraction of players, owners, coaches and officials have been truly prohibited from rejoining their leagues.
But together, these few cases serve as a kind of mirror for our values over time. The reasons for these bans have shifted from the preservation of fair play to the enforcement of progressive ideals, so that if people get tossed today, it’s less likely because they cheated and more likely because their worldviews are reprehensible.
The earliest bans were in baseball. As far back as the 1860s, the league punished gamblers and their collaborators, who threatened to undermine the competitiveness of the sport. The Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, when eight members of the White Sox were accused of conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series to make good on a wager, remains the most famous episode.
To restore order, the league tapped federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as its first commissioner. A judge made sense. The early 20th century was a time of rapid economic growth and social upheaval, and Americans took comfort in ideas like truth and justice, while they cast aspersions on cheaters and liars.
In 1921, Landis permanently banned the White Sox players involved in the scandal and repeatedly denied their reinstatement, even though they were acquitted in court. Years later, he explained that his broad approach was about fairness. “We do not want baseball in America exempt from the liabilities of common life in America,” he told the Baseball Writers Association in 1943. “We want the same rules applied and enforced on us as on everyone else.” He added, “I don’t want any man in the stands to think that any man on the field is exempt from any law or statute.”
Through the 1940s and ’50s, other sports were similarly preoccupied with fairness and banned players for their involvement in betting schemes. In football, New York Giants quarterback Frank Filchock and fullback Merle Hapes were banned for associating with a gambler who planned to fix the 1946 championship game. Both were eventually reinstated, though neither had much of a career in the NFL afterward. In the NBA, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza of the Indianapolis Olympians were banned from the league in 1951 for their involvement in a point-shaving scandal while in college. In 1989, Pete Rose was banned from baseball for betting on games while managing the Cincinnati Reds, though he maintains he never threw a game.
Cheating, of course, is still one way sports figures can land themselves in trouble. In 2007, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was fined the NFL maximum $500,000 for his role in a videotaping scheme to steal opponents’ play-calling signals. And New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is sitting out this season for his involvement in a performance-enhancing-drug scandal.
Yet no cheating scandal in recent history has triggered a lifetime ban by any of the major professional sports leagues. (In 2012, Lance Armstrong was banned for life from cycling by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a nonprofit that oversees American Olympic competition.)
Concerns about fairness in professional sports were eventually overshadowed by anxiety over recreational drug use. The war on drugs was firmly underway when, in 1982, retired NFL defensive end Don Reese wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated in which he explained how cocaine had ostensibly ruined his life. In 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died after a cocaine overdose, just days after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics.
In response to the growing unease, new substance-abuse policies in the NFL and the NBA gave their commissioners more authority to ban players who tested positive for illegal drugs. In January 1986, two-time all-star John Drew was banned for life for using cocaine, a first for the NBA. A month later, New Jersey Net Micheal Ray Richardson was banned for abusing drugs, though he was reinstated in 1988. A year later, Atlanta Hawks center Chris Washburn was banned after three drug infractions.
By the 1990s, political correctness was firmly entrenched in American culture, so perhaps it was not surprising when offensive remarks by a team owner led to her ban from baseball. Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott had a history of distasteful and off-color comments before the league began to take notice. She once said on ESPN that Hitler was “good in the beginning, but he just went too far,” and she told Sports Illustrated that she didn’t think Asian Americans should “come here and stay so long and then outdo our kids.” She also had plenty to say about gay people and black people. Schott was suspended twice before she was forced to sell her stake in the team in 1999, though she was technically reinstated beforehand.
Today, we’re in something of a post politically-correct world, in which jokes about race and sexual orientation are acceptable and part of most network sitcoms, but actual racism and homophobia are more reviled than ever (“Duck Dynasty” has suffered a ratings setback).
Which brings us to Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
This is probably the worst moment in history for an NBA owner to have a recorded conversation in which he tells his girlfriend that he doesn’t like it when she associates publicly with black people such as Magic Johnson. Not only is the president black, so are about 30 percent of the league’s fans. And if not exactly post-racial, as a country we like to think that we’ve distanced ourselves from our discriminatory past. So when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver convened the news media Tuesday afternoon to scold, fine and ban Sterling for life, there was little to no resistance from the league or from fans. Here, now, Sterling didn’t stand a chance.
In a way, Sterling’s dismissal was unlike any other we’ve seen in professional sports, because it was not based on something he did or said publicly. It was based on something he believes — or technically, on something he’s believed to believe. Where Schott was banned because she couldn’t stop telling it like she saw it, Sterling was banned because we finally heard firsthand what he was thinking.
“Mr. Sterling’s views have no place in the NBA,” Silver said Tuesday. Sterling’s undoing was his attitude. That’s also a fairly new idea, and it speaks to our growing fascination with the inner lives of public figures. It’s unlikely, for example, that Commissioner Landis would have banned any of the 1919 White Sox for thinking that cheating was okay. They had to actually cheat.
There’s one more way to think about Sterling’s ban as a product of its time. Today, television revenue and advertising sponsorship are far more important to the NBA than even 20 years ago, and Sterling’s comments triggered an exodus of sponsorship dollars. Before Silver’s announcement Tuesday, CarMax, Kia, Red Bull, Sprint, State Farm and Virgin America had cut ties or suspended their deals with the Clippers. That made this case different from other times Sterling reportedly made racist comments or exhibited prejudiced behavior.
Lost revenue has consequences for all the other NBA owners, because each team contributes the same percentage of its revenue to a pool, to be divided up equally among the 30 teams. By moving quickly to remove Sterling, the NBA may have been sending a message to owners that their revenue streams were safe, as well as a message to sponsors that they would not have to worry about the integrity of their brands. Maybe banning Sterling was the just the league’s way of telling the NBA’s advertisers, “We know it bothers you to have your brand associated with this person.”