By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
When the LA Clippers owner chose “Sterling” as his last name, it is clear he didn’t have his character in mind. We can stipulate that his infamous statements were racist and repugnant. Frankly, they were also stupid, in large part unintelligible, such that one can easily conclude that he suffers from a form of dementia. (Judging by the way the franchise has been run for thirty years, Clippers fans might assume that dementia beset him long ago.)
Nonetheless, there are a number of troubling aspects about this episode, Sterling’s proposed lifetime ban from the NBA and the forced sale of his team, beyond his foolish and odious comments. For one, it is worrisome the way the right of free speech – which in America once protected even detestable speech – is being whittled down to practical insignificance. Just several weeks ago, the new CEO of Mozilla Firefox was hounded from his position because he opposes same-gender marriage. Apparently, the historically liberal position protecting all forms of speech is waning. As noted here in the past, modern liberal elites, to paraphrase Voltaire, will defend to the death your right to agree with them. If an NBA owner – religious Christian or Jew – publicly advocated traditional marriage (between a man and a woman, if you have forgotten), will that owner also be subject to sanctions and public pillorying?
The correct answer to that question is “not yet,” but we are certainly heading down that road. Of course, there is a difference in kind and degree between opposition to same gender marriage and racism, but clearly the consequences are the same. In some circles the former attitude is unacceptable and akin to racism (so they would have us believe) and in all circles the latter sentiment is offensive. The common denominator, though, is that both men have been stripped of their livelihoods. That can’t bode well for the future, as this will become the new and only acceptable standard for the expression of undesirable speech. (Well, there is another standard as well: the IRS can harass you into silence if your politics offend the authorities.)
From my vantage point, I would much prefer that the marketplace decide a person’s fate for deplorable conduct or speech, along with appropriate social ostracism. If, for example, a storeowner or company were found to be Jew haters, I would cease to patronize that establishment and would expect all decent people to do the same (like all decent people should boycott Firefox). I would not want the government or the society of merchants to pound the offender into submission. Intolerant speakers should also be ostracized socially and feel the scorn of polite society. Let the marketplace, rather than the “man,” ruin the business of a bigot. As such, I am fully supportive of the Clippers sponsors dropping the team, as I would be of fans refusing to attend the team’s games until there was new ownership or players refusing to sign with the team. It just seems a fairer way to repudiate Sterling; let him be forced to sell the team because the revenue stream has dried up, not because the “man” has decided that this individual does not have the right of free speech because he has exercised that right so disgracefully.
It is true that NBA ownership rights are limited by league by-laws, and owners can be sanctioned for conduct detrimental to the league. In a sense, the marketplace in which Sterling conducts his business does control his future. But is private speech “conduct”? Indeed, his public conduct in relation to the team would seem to be fairly conventional – a longtime black general manager (granted, a relationship that did not end well, but, truth be told, Elgin Baylor, great player that he was, was not much of a GM), a black head coach, and mostly black players. In any event, someone who allegedly hates blacks and still buys an NBA franchise makes as much sense as a Jew hater owning a seforim store.
It is also disconcerting that Sterling’s lamentable comments were taped in private and released by a “friend” to the public. For sure, Jews are on permanent notice to watch what we say and what we do: “know what is Above you. There is an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all one’s deeds are recorded in a [Heavenly] book” (Avot 2:1). There is an expectation of privacy that facilitates normal social and familial relations. When that is breached, we all suffer.
Indeed, it would be wonderful if the NBA morals clause for its owners and players considered public adultery a violation as well. That Sterling is a lowlife on multiple counts is clear, but I suspect that applying the morals clause to morality would denude the NBA of many of its owners and players. But, you might ask, isn’t adultery private conduct? Yes, but so was the racist speech.
Is there a broader lesson here, some deeper message that can resonate and reform the society? No. Hatred is often as inexcusable as it is often bizarre, but it is an emotion that has its proper uses and, like all emotions, cannot be legislated out of the human psyche. Its worst consequences come not through speech but through action, notwithstanding that even hateful speech sullies the society.
Yet, there is also an appalling hypocrisy that should be obvious to all. Sterling was already honored once by the NAACP (he was to be honored again), which doesn’t mean that his remarks were spontaneous and original but that the NAACP – like other race hustlers – routinely extorts money for its leftist political causes and its leadership from whites who donate out of guilt or fear and from white racists looking to purchase respectability. Look no further that the guest-of-honor at the dinner from which Sterling was now banned, one Al Sharpton, one of the primary race hucksters in America today. How does an organization that seeks to be mainstream and reputable honor (well, Sterling, but also) Sharpton, who made his career impugning the character of various white people and provoked a riot in New York City with an anti-Jewish screed that resulted in the death of seven people, even calling the Jewish storeowner in Harlem a “white interloper?” Sharpton led a protest in front of Lubavitch headquarters after Yankel Rosenbaum hy”d was stabbed to death in a black race riot in 1991, crying “No justice, no peace.” Of course, that quest for justice was not for justice for the murdered Jewish yeshiva student, whose confessed murderer was acquitted of homicide by a mostly black jury. Nevertheless, Sharpton has been rehabilitated, is regularly feted by President Obama and is even featured on cable television. It is impossible to imagine a white with identical racist views as those of Sharpton or Jesse Jackson achieving the same sort of mainstream credibility that they possess.
For that matter, how does Charles Barkley get away with calling the NBA a “black league”? Sure, the entertainers are mostly black, but most of the owners, fans, and sponsors are white. The revenue that has created thousands of black millionaires primarily comes from whites. Should that not be acknowledged? (It needs to be said that those black millionaires earn their money fairly by monetizing their talents and providing a service that people want.)
Racists in America today are outliers and not tolerated in polite society, so Sterling will get his just desserts and warrants no sympathy. For sure, no NBA owner will vote against forcing him to sell or that owner will face the wrath of the public and players. The vote is a foregone conclusion. But peculiar and atypical events such as this one distort the reality of racism in the United States. It is a fringe phenomenon that is kept alive by people who profit from it. When Chief Justice John Roberts had the gall to write in 2007 (in PICS, the last affirmative action case before the Schuette decision two weeks ago) that the best “way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race,” he was roundly condemned by the liberal media and the usual suspects. But those who endorse favorable, special treatment based on race should not be surprised to encounter maltreatment based on race. Both forms of discrimination are absurd. Color of skin, hair, eyes, and the like should play no role in assessing the worth of a human being or in assigning his place in schools or the business world.
We are far from that situation not because racism is prevalent but because too many people benefit from the frequent accusations of racism routinely lodged against, well, anyone, even, for example, opponents of Obamacare. That is not to say that Sterling was motivated by anything more than sheer bigotry, and perhaps the onset of senility, but one thing is obvious: the stridency of his public putdown will pale before the shrillness of the commentariat that will keep this incident in the public eye far longer than it deserves. Of course, the likelihood that Sterling will not go quietly into the night means that he will be a ubiquitous presence in the culture until and even after he is tarred and feathered.
And, as if we didn’t know it already, file this away as further confirmation that there is no correlation between wealth, on the one hand, and intelligence or morality on the other.