Strict Liability For Biases and the Racist NBA Team Owner Principle

Keep the lock secure, and all the bad stuff inside might not matter...

Keep the lock secure, and all the bad stuff inside might not matter…

I had an unusual  roommate in law school, a former Marine, smart, handsome and charismatic. Let’s call him “Carl.”

He was also a racist, and unapologetic about it. He was an anti-Semite too. After Carl died at the age of 27 in a freak accident, his funeral was attended by several Jewish and African-American law students who considered my roommate a good friend. They had no idea that he was prejudiced, because my friend treated everyone with fairness and respect, at least in my experience. I would ask Carl about this, and he would express surprise that I would be confused at his behavior. “I would never treat anyone with disrespect, no matter who he or she was, or unfairly either,” he said. “That would be wrong, and not Christian.” (He was a Roman Catholic.) Carl also gave annual contributions to the United Negro College Fund, and he was far from wealthy.

That was my introduction to the truth, and it is a comforting one, that biases can be overcome if someone has the character and the strength to recognize them as biases. Racism is just a bias, you know; a particularly harmful and strong one, but still a bias. Having a bias, even a strong one, is not unethical, just as thoughts themselves, without more, are not unethical. A bias is an ethics impediment, a condition that makes being ethical more difficult, and for many of us, impossible. My friend was one of the most honorable and ethical people in his conduct that I ever knew. He had a bias, knew that to be an ethical human being he had to overcome it daily, and did.

If, however, his black and Jewish friends had learned about his private arguments with me, they would have been hurt, and could not have remained friends with him. It would simply be a matter of trust….although, in fact, Carl was completely worthy of trust no matter what race or creed you were. But it is impossible, I think to continue to trust anyone once you know that he is prejudiced against your race.

This brings us to the ugly tale of Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. His girlfriend, who is black, recorded an argument between the two of them in which he reprimanded her for posting photographs of African-American companions.

Among the comments, as reported by TMZ, which reviewed the recording:

  • “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
  • “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
  • “I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”

Needless to say, Sterling’s basketball team, like all pro basketball teams, is primarily made up of black athletes, which he pays extraordinarily well. Even if nothing regarding his treatment of his players and employees has been influenced by his racism (and in the case of Sterling, that is very much in question), he cannot continue to be allowed to own an NBA team, and if he is rational about the situation, Sterling should be able to understand this. His racism, if it remained locked in his mind and a personal, secret bias that he was capable of overcoming in his business and personal duties and transactions, is not unethical, any more than any conflict of interest that one is able to overcome is unethical. Ethics only comes into the equation when, for whatever reason, his bias becomes known to those he is biased against. Unless they freely assent to and waive his bias, while accepting that it will play no role in how Sterling will treat them and others like them, then he has to withdraw from the ownership and management of the team. Of course, such waiver and assent is impossible. His bias undermines trust by fans, journalists, players and NBA officials, and poses a public relations crisis for the sport.  Sterling can claim, as I’m sure he will, that his comments were private and taken out of context, and that he is no racist. (Cliven Bunby says he’s not a racist either.) It doesn’t matter what he says. What matters is that his words make trusting him impossible, which means that he is untrustworthy. He has to go.

How that will be accomplished is a tangential issue. Major League Baseball had a similar problem years ago with Marge Schott, its first female team owner, who, among other gaffes, publicly expressed admiration for Hitler. It took years and multiple suspensions, but eventually Marge was forced to sell her team, the Cincinnati Reds. She had nobody to blame but herself, and Sterling is similarly accountable. Vile biases are our personal burdens; if we can’t banish or eliminate them, we are ethically obligated to make certain that they stay in our skulls, safe and harmless, because even the revelation that they exist causes harm to others. In law, keeping a dangerous animal on your property creates strict liability: if it gets loose, no matter how, you are liable for the harm it causes to others. Racist thoughts are like that too.

Aside: Only slightly less disturbing than Sterling’s comments are those in response to the New York Daily News  article on the story. A more diverse and depressing collection of warped ethics, racism, stupidity, rationalizations and hate you are unlikely to find. God Save The United States of America…


Facts: TMZ

Source: NY Daily New


13 thoughts on “Strict Liability For Biases and the Racist NBA Team Owner Principle

  1. “…he cannot continue to be allowed to own an NBA team…” I get what you’re saying about trust and the obligation to treat people fairly, whatever your own biases may be. But who really has the right to force him not to own an NBA team?

    I’m not trying to defend Sterling, and I don’t know anything else about him except that he’s owned the Clippers for a long time and managed the franchise poorly. I just wonder…even if he is a racist asshole, how does that mean we get to take away what he earned, bought, and built?

    • Thus the problem of making him give up the team, which I alluded to. His team needs a league and other teams to play, and association with him damages the brand and the business. I’m certain the NBA has binding regulations on owner conduct…it can find owners for harmful comments. You can’t operate a basketball team in a vacuum.

      • Yeah, there is that. If his actions are harming other businesses in the same association, and the association has rules of conduct that he’s breaking, and his actions have destroyed trust in his ability to do fair business, then the association has the right — even an obligation to its other members — to get rid of him.

        I still wonder about outside observers like us calling for him to be removed. How far can that go in a case like this before it starts to resemble the left’s insistence that someone else’s improper opinions justify any amount of meddling?

        • Ah, my “Naked Teacher Principle” reference in the title was too subtle then. As with that principle, the Racist NBA Owner Principle states that a racist owner can’t complain when the revelation of his bias gets him ejected. I’m not calling for him to go; I’m just saying that even though he did nothing wrong, canning him is still justifiable.

  2. Bundy’s comments were apparently taken out of context:

    As for Sterling… the NBA probably needs to buy the Clippers from him. His comments and actions are clearly racist. There is going to be that issue.

    However, a forced or rushed sale will damage the value of the team. The NBA needs to give Sterling the market value of the team, and then the league needs to move to sell that team ASAP.

  3. I would like to point out that at least one of the comments he made (“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”), while not sounding all that great, isn’t something I can really get worked up over.

    ‘Don’t bring the guys you’re banging on the side to my place of business where you will very likely be photographed and it will be rubbed in my face,’ doesn’t sound entirely unreasonable…

  4. Like your late friend, Jack, Sterling’s attitudes toward others are his own concern as long as he keeps it to himself. On the other hand, if he got a commentary show on MSNBC to balance out Al Sharpton, that’s fine, too!

    • First,
      how can a business(NBA) override the U.S. Constitution?
      How about FREE speech?
      Second, Mr. Sterling was in his own home!

      Third, the person violated the law when she tape him without his knowledge or consent.

      Fourth, why is he a racist ? He has a BLACK girlfriend!

      Fifth, he told her she could SLEEP with the black guys, just don’t bring them to his house or games! Just don’t flaunt them. Most people would feel the same way.

      All the folks crying “He is a Racist” should look in the mirror!

      I do not care if he is a racist or not, he is an American!!! He can be whatever he wants!

      FYI, I not KNOW anyone associated with any of this mess.
      I really just want to know how the NBA can throw away the U.S. Constitution.

      Thank you,

  5. I think the “Racist Team Owner Principle” and the “Naked Teacher Principle” can be abstracted to:

    “Those who engage in behavior which makes one less capable of performing professionally or marketing professionalism don’t have a right to complain if the market, especially those who hire/pay them, react negatively to them.”

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