The odious comments of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have dominated the sports news for the past week. The NBA players’ union and practically all journalists, commentators and various media hangers-on have put the entire onus on the NBA and its owners to throw out Sterling. The problem is that such an action may be legally dubious and will likely be a very long and expensive process if Sterling prefers to fight.
The solution to getting rid of Sterling isn’t with the owners – it’s with the players. No NBA team can exist without players. If no player is willing to play for the Clippers, then Sterling has no option but to get out. In short, the players need to take a page out of the civil rights book and the first successful civil rights protest in the South: the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
A brief synopsis of the controversy: the 80-year-old Sterling was recorded making racist statements by his very young “girlfriend” – or perhaps more accurately “professional companion.” A deserved torrent of abuse has rained down on this old fool and the NBA has banned Sterling from any participation in NBA activities and fined him. The commissioner of the NBA has announced his determination to force Sterling to sell the team.
Allegations of racism and indeed evidence of racism by Sterling have swirled around the man for years, which makes his ownership of an NBA team extraordinarily strange. It would be like a liberal advocacy group – say Media Matters — working to thwart unionization attempts by its employees. It just defies logic.
Sterling’s own background makes him easy to dislike. He started his career as a personal-injury lawyer (is any further comment necessary?). He is the worst owner in major professional sports (the Clippers have had the worst record of any major league franchise since he bought them in 1981). Although he settled discrimination suits without admitting guilt, published reports show him to be a real Neanderthal.
Sterling and His Enablers
Over the past several days it has been highly entertaining to listen to the condemnations roll in. Sterling has been roundly criticized by his family (who have likely heard plenty of this before), the NBA (who declined to follow-up on previous loathsome comments and proven allegations of racist attitudes), the players (who have been quite happy to play for him if he made the best cash offer), and the NAACP (who was willing to give him not one but two awards as long as he paid them off). It has been a long time since the air has been so thick with hypocritical sanctimony.
But the fact remains that the man made comments that are simply unacceptable. I know the response from many: it’s his First Amendment right to free speech. Well, absolutely that is true. But the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to be insulated from responsibility. Sterling can say whatever he wants, but the NBA and the rest of the world has a right to criticize him. Further, the NBA has a right to protect its financial interests. And – here is the key point – people have the right of free association. We can choose to associate or not associate with others.
The Free Market Solution
The first high-profile triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1950s was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Determined to end their status as second-class citizens, the African-American community united to end segregation on the public transit system – where they were the majority customers.
They organized a non-violent boycott of the system, walking, carpooling, and taking taxis to work.
The boycott ended up dragging along for over a year, but not because of a failure of the free market. The privately-owned bus company was quickly sent to the brink of bankruptcy. The coercive power of the state, in the form of the city of Montgomery, was brought to bear to force continued segregation. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public transit was unconstitutional. The critical fact is that the free market would have ended segregation if not for government intervention.
In the case of the Clippers, the free market is already at work. Multiple corporate sponsors have pulled their sponsorships, although it is uncertain how many have been able to cancel their contracts. Some may still be paying the Clippers contractually-obligated fees. It seems likely that a continued Sterling ownership will result in reduced ticket sales for next season.