Wednesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced his response to the recordings in which L. A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling makes racist statements: Sterling is fined $2.5 million and banned for life from interacting with the Clippers or any other NBA team. Silver can’t force Sterling to sell his team, but he says the other NBA owners collectively can, and he’s going to ask them to do so.
The question is whether the deprivation of his property rights — in terms of his ownership rights of a sports team … of basically taking away his livelihood, is a slippery slope. … Is this the future of America, where private conversations between two people who are supposedly in a relationship wind up going public and then somebody who makes clearly inappropriate remarks (to put it charitably) has everything taken away from them?
In this telling of the story, Sterling is the victim of two injuries: the original invasion of privacy, and then the reaction of the NBA commissioner, which might force Sterling to sell his team.
In response, I would paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: An NBA owner has a constitutional right to be a racist, but he has no constitutional right to be an NBA owner.
The invasion of privacy is definitely an injury, but it’s the kind of thing that has been happening to public figures (and occasionally non-public figures) for some time, usually without negative comment from Kelly. Just this week, there was another Rob Ford crack-smoking video. Remember the rant Alec Baldwin left on his daughter’s answering machine or when he was recorded yelling homophobic slurs at paparazzi? Or Mel Gibson? John Kerry got in trouble this week because someone leaked a recording of a closed-door meeting. Both Romney and Obama had trouble with secret recordings. The whole ACORN sting video was based on secret recordings (which were then edited to make them sound worse). Linda Tripp secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky. ESPN’s Erin Andrews was filmed naked through a hotel-room peephole, and let’s not even get into all the sex tapes and nude photos of ordinary people that have become public without their consent. (Here’s an example of someone who really lost her livelihood.)
I’m happy Megan Kelly has finally noticed this issue, now that there’s a racist billionaire to defend.
But “property rights” is a complete red herring. First, the obvious: Being forced to sell something is not the same as having it (or “everything”) taken away from you. Sterling will get a good price for the Clippers and continue to be a billionaire. His “livelihood” is not at stake.
Second, an NBA team is not an independent business like a barber shop or a diner. The NBA is a cartel, not a collection of independent businesses, and the value of the Clippers comes from its membership in the cartel, not its potential earnings as an independent basketball team. The cartel has rules that the owners have agreed to. If we start defending Sterling’s right to do what he wants with his team, regardless of what the league agreement says, then we’d also have to defend the other owners’ right to do what they want with their teams — like refuse to schedule games against the Clippers, making Sterling’s team more-or-less worthless.
There’s a reason sports teams are called “franchises”. You may own a McDonald’s franchise, but if you bring shame to the McDonald’s chain, I’m sure they have a way to get that franchise away from you. Same thing here.
In addition to shame, Sterling is bringing labor problems to the NBA.
Players’ union Vice President Roger Mason Jr. said Tuesday he spoke to representatives from every playoff team about the possibility of boycotting the upcoming postseason games in solidarity against any ruling that didn’t include a mandate for Sterling to sell the Clippers.
The NBA is 76% black, and the idea that the white (but for Michael Jordan) owners don’t respect them because of their race must always be in the background. In addition, Sterling’s remarks made it clear that he has a paternalistic view of ownership in general. Asked about his players, Sterling said:
I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?
The players don’t earn their money — much less earn money for Sterling — Sterling “gives it to them”. This is straight out of Atlas Shrugged, when John Galt tells the workers at Hank Rearden’s steel mill:
Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of [a medieval] blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.
So players are threatening work stoppages, sponsors are pulling out, and fans are protesting. In the lingo of another famous cartel — the Mafia — Sterling’s continued ownership is “bad for business”. The other bosses need to take him out.
* Kelly was the first one to draw my attention, but in fairness Sterling-as-victim has been a popular topic in the conservative media. See also Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, John Hinderaker, National Review …