Steve Paul

Why the free-speech-in-private crowd is wrong in NBA’s Donald Sterling case

In the face of widespread approval for NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s swift action to punish the odious Donald Sterling, some commentators have issued wait-a-minute counterpunches.

They worry about the precedent the league has taken on the grounds that the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers made his uncomfortable and ugly statements about black people in private — and doesn’t everybody have a right to be stupid in private?

Well, yes and no. As Silver said, in response to a press conference question Tuesday, whether or not Sterling spoke in private, his remarks have been made very public and there’s no turning back from that. Sterling, too, is very much a public figure, and one who has a long history of offensive behavior in the world of business and basketball. Public figures tend to be held to higher standards than most of the rest of us who speak offensively in private.

Questioning why the NBA waited until now to try to oust one of its longest-tenured owners is fair enough and worthy of contemplation if not investigation. But the fact is, Sterling has now been banned, fined and put on notice that the league will try to force the sale of his team.

But some have argued in favor of “free speech” or caution lest the NBA over-reaches and denies Sterling a right to his “private property.”

So do nothing?

That would be unacceptable. And, as a league controlled by its team owners who adhere to a constitution and bylaws, the NBA has an obligation to address the adverse behavior of one of its own. It’s a men’s club with rules, and Sterling has made a mess for his fellow owners.

Sterling’s case is complicated by his personal arrogance, marital issues and the possibly vengeful girlfriend thing.

But that excuses nothing. Donald Sterling may not represent the very last gasp of the plantation ethos of American sports. But his removal is a huge step in the right direction.