They don’t call him King James for nothing. When an illicit tape of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling spouting racist drivel surfaced last week, the Miami Heat’s star LeBron James promptly demanded that Sterling be banished from the NBA.
“No matter how long it takes, no matter how much money it costs, we need to get him out of there,” James said, declaring that other NBA owners should force Sterling to sell the Clippers.
I’m hoping the King might entertain a few questions.
• Does it matter what the law says about this? NBA rules, which Sterling agreed to abide by when he purchased the Clippers, give the league virtually unchecked authority to suspend an owner from direct involvement with his team (which the NBA has done, for life) and to fine him (which it has also done, for $2.5 million).
When it comes to forcing him to sell his team, though, things get a little dicier. The NBA bylaws list 10 grounds for forcing an owner to give up his franchise. Mostly they have to do with gambling or defaulting on payments. “Being a scummy racist idiot” isn’t remotely one of them.
You’re a businessman, LeBron, and your $130 million portfolio contains a number of joint-venture companies, stores and even a British soccer team. What would you think if your partners — without any legal authority to do so — simply seized them when they decided something you said was offensive?
• Is there a danger in setting a precedent that somebody can be kicked out of the NBA for holding an unpopular opinion? Piling on to Sterling is easy because what he said — telling his girlfriend not to pose for pictures with black people or bring them to Clippers games — is so profoundly offensive to practically every corner of American society.
But the definition of what’s profoundly offensive to society can change rapidly. And as recently as 1975 — two decades after the Supreme Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal,” 11 years after Congress banned practically all forms of racial discrimination — the New York Mets fined a black outfielder named Cleon Jones $2,000 — four times the largest previous fine in the team’s history — after he was found naked in a van with a white girl. (He also had to hold a press conference to publicly apologize to New Yorkers — not racist dingbats in Arkansas, but New Yorkers!)
That’s not some weird aberration. Over the years, many athletes have been fined or suspended for defying public-opinion orthodoxy, from supporting legalized marijuana (Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee) to loving Fidel Castro (Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen) to opposing the Vietnam war (boxer Muhammad Ali, who lost nearly five years of his career).
Already, in the wake of the calls for Sterling’s head, there are rumblings about the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic and has also contributed heavily to anti-gay-marriage groups. Some people argue that’s just a slightly more polite form of homophobia, and they should be run out of the league, too. Do you agree? Think carefully before answering, LeBron, because that question leads to the next one:
• If Sterling should be kicked out of the NBA, why not Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudamire, Roy Hibbert, Matt Barnes and the entire Houston Rockets?
All of these NBA colleagues of yours have been accused of public homophobic slurs during the past three years, and in every case except that of the Rockets, their words were captured on videotape. Bryant, Barnes and Stoudemire used derogatory words for gay to insult a referee, a policeman and a fan, respectively.
There’s no tape of the Rockets taunting and ultimately driving from their locker room a gay caterer who was trying to set up a post-game meal for them. But officials of the Brooklyn Nets, in whose arena the incident took place, witnessed it and apologized to the caterer. Not one of those players missed a single game for their behavior. The Rockets haven’t been punished at all.
And surely you remember the Hibbert case — during last year’s playoffs, he said on TV he was “no homo” even though you scored a bunch of points against him. I don’t recall you breathing a word of protest about that, much less calling for him to be banned from the NBA. Is it impudent for us commoners to ask why there’s room in your kingdom for homophobia, but not racism?