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The NBA’s Donald Sterling Decision: Everything Right, but a Dangerous Precedent

May 14, 2014


As an avid basketball fan I wasn’t surprised that Donald Sterling was taped making racist statements and I wasn’t surprised that the NBA came down on him so hard.
In fact, the NBA’s decision cut through a lot of judicial impediments to true justice. Let’s examine some salient points:

1. Punishment for Cumulative Bad Behavior

Many commentators pointed out that the racist statements of Mr. Sterling were just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Any long-time NBA fan will tell you that Mr. Sterling was the scourge of the league. His franchise was the most poorly run franchise in all professional sports (that is saying a lot) and he embarrassed the league with his business dealings outside the league- having been sued by the Federal Government for housing discrimination, among other offenses. So the harsh punishment was not just for the racist statements, but also for the 30 years of boorish and allegedly illegal behavior.

Right result, but troubling methodology. Mind you, judges and juries do this all the time with sentencing, but they are bound by some kind of guidelines established by the whole criminal procedure that happens before sentencing. Here, Sterling got none of that as no one thought he deserved any grace.

2. Punishment for Private Statements

Even those applauding this decision by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver should be scared by what happened here. I’m not going to defend Sterling, but all his punishable behavior was spoken in private; Mere words, not even meant for an audience of more than one. While being a racist is inexcusable, being punished for expressions made to one person is groundbreaking- AND a bad precedent.

Theoretically, anyone with unpopular opinions should be concerned about being overheard or taped and being taken to task for expressing those opinions.

3. Punishment for Behavior that is Excused (even lauded ) in the Rest of the World

Sterling treated his coaches and executives like most business owners treat all their employees. I say that with some irony. One of Mr. Sterling’s sins was that he made Mike Dunleavy, a long-time coach and former player, sue him for his salary after Sterling fired him with years remaining on a guaranteed contract. When business owners do this to non-celebrities they are seen as “tough businessmen” or, at worst, exercising their legal rights to have a hearing in front of a court.

Of course, in the NBA, billionaire owners aren’t supposed to treat millionaire executives like this. It would great if business owners would never act this way, but I’ve seen it dozens of times in my legal life.

Overall, Sterling deserved what he got because he’s stupid. It’s stupid to be racist and even stupider in the NBA environment.

Avrum Aaron, Esq., is the COO of Legal Outsourcing Partners, LLC. He can be reached at or at 201-379-9230.


From → Law

One Comment
  1. Mia permalink

    Donald Sterling got what he deserved because racism is WRONG and morally despicable. Your statement that racism is stupid misses the point.

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