Donald Sterling Should Keep the Clippers

by Benjamin Studebaker

Donald Sterling, landlord and owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, holds exceptionally repugnant moral views. In a recorded conversation with one of his girlfriends, Sterling allegedly said:

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 [Instagram] and not to bring them to my games.

There’s nine minutes of it, if you’re bored. While at the time of writing, the recording has not yet been authenticated, it’s quite likely it will be, because Donald Sterling has a history of saying racist and sexist things. Many people are disgusted with the guy, as well they should be. Some are however calling for the NBA to force Sterling to sell the Clippers. This is a mistake. Here’s why.

This is Donald Sterling:

There is no question that Donald Sterling is a terrible person. Here are just a few of the things he’s done:

  • In 1981, when Sterling first bought the Clippers, he asked then-coach Paul Silas if he wouldn’t mind doing the trainer’s job for free so Sterling could save on salary.
  • In 1982, Sterling proposed cutting the Clippers’ training camp expenses from $50k to $100, scouting from $20k to $1k, advertising from $200k to $9k, and medical expenses from $10k to $100.
  • In 1984, Sterling was fined $6 million by the NBA for moving the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without consulting the league.
  • In 1996, Sterling was sued for sexual harassment. The plaintiff claimed that he asked her to look for massage therapists: “I want someone who will, you know, let me put it in or who [will] suck on it.” Sterling settled.
  • In the late 1990’s, Sterling had his scorekeepers deliberately underestimate the number of assists recorded by players to depress their market value.
  • In 2000, Sterling kept his son out of jail after his son allegedly shot someone in a fight over a girl.
  • In 2001, Sterling was sued and defeated by the city of Santa Monica for harassing and threatening to evict tenants for placing potted plants on balconies.
  • In 2003, Sterling settled a housing discrimination lawsuit. Allegedly, he didn’t like renting to black people because “they smell” or Hispanics because “they just smoke and drink all day”. He preferred to rent to Koreans because “they will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent”.
  • In 2003, Sterling sued a former mistress. Claiming that the relationship was exclusively one of prostitution, he said: “If you are having sex with a woman you are paying for, you always call her honey because you can’t remember her name.”
  • In 2004, Sterling refused to pay for cancer treatments for a Clippers assistant coach (several Clippers players helped the assistant cover the costs).
  • In 2005, Sterling settled another housing discrimination lawsuit, this time paying at least $5 million plus a confidential sum that is likely to be quite massive.
  • In 2006, Sterling pledged $50 million to build a homeless shelter that has not yet been built.
  • In 2009, Sterling settled a Federal housing bias lawsuit for $2.73 million.
  • In 2010, Sterling’s former general manager, Elgin Baylor, claimed in a discrimination lawsuit (which Baylor lost) that Sterling wanted a “southern plantation style” team with a white coach and black players. Baylor alleges that Sterling “would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, ‘Look at those beautiful black bodies.’ I brought [player complaints] to Sterling’s attention, but he continued to bring women into the locker room.”

It’s fair to say that Sterling is racist, sexist, skinflint, and indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Indeed, looking at this vast (and only partial) list, what’s really remarkable is just how indifferent our society has been to this man up to this point. Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981–33 years and counting–and during that time he has done many things that are much worse than the recent comments that have been in the press. Denying employees cancer treatments and housing discrimination are in a completely different class from mere racist commentary. The man’s actions are far worse than his words, and his words are pretty bad. Yet despite this, none of these previous incidents have inspired any kind of general call for Sterling’s ouster. Many of the journalists and players calling for Sterling’s to be forced out said nothing about these prior incidents. All of the players and coaches and employees of the Clippers organization knew what kind of man they were contracting to work for. All of this has been public knowledge for quite some time. If you punched “Donald Sterling” into Google, all of this came right up. That no one has really said much of anything, that star players and coaches like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Doc Rivers have freely chosen to work for this man when they knew or could easily have known what he was, is remarkable.

Nonetheless, the NBA should let Sterling stay. Why? Donald Sterling has damaged the NBA’s reputation and marred the 2014 playoffs. Donald Sterling is a jerk. But that is all he is. It is wrong to publicly persecute someone for having an opinion we don’t like, no matter how repugnant that opinion, provided that this person is not breaking the law. While Donald Sterling may have committed some crimes (it would not surprise me in the slightest if he has), he has not been convicted of anything. Assuming that the NBA’s investigation conclusively links Sterling to the recording, all the league can conclusively establish is that Donald Sterling has repugnant opinions. We do not take people’s property away because we don’t like their moral and political views. One of the great things about America is that you can be a wretched scumbag with appalling views and still be secure from violence and theft.

Those wishing to eject Sterling from the NBA for his views are attempting to dispossess Sterling of his property to punish him for saying something awful. This does not respect Sterling’s free speech entitlement to say spectacularly wretched things without compromising his other legal entitlements. It is important that we allow people from time to time to voice horrifying opinions, if for no other reason than to remind us why we hold views that differ. As John Stuart Mill put it:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

Even our belief that racism, sexism, and so on are appalling needs to be examined and re-committed to from time to time. Sterling’s repugnant views are a public service insofar as they remind us not only that yes, in this day and age, people like Sterling exist, but that they are wrong not merely because we have been taught from a young age to believe that they are wrong, but because we genuinely have good reasons for rejecting their views. Sterling’s view treats people differently based on their skin color. His distinction (and indeed, the racist distinction more broadly) is arbitrary and meaningless, and we do well to be reminded of that from to time to time.

This does not mean there are not many other things we might do to show Donald Sterling that we think his view is repugnant. Mill offers us additional options:

We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. 

NBA players and coaches can choose not to sign with Donald Sterling’s team when they become free agents. Fans can refuse to go to Clippers games or to buy Clippers merchandise. Advertisers can drop the Clippers and their players. National TV networks and cable providers can refuse to air Clippers games. In these ways and others, we can refuse to associate ourselves with Sterling without maligning his free speech. Donald Sterling is a party to the NBA’s constitution, which empowers the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, to fine and suspend individuals for comments and actions detrimental to the league. Silver can levy a large fine on Sterling and suspend him from attending Clippers games or participating in basketball operations. In all of these cases, Sterling is either being punished in accordance with an agreement he signed or being freely disassociated with in a manner consistent with that espoused by Mill. He must not be compelled to relinquish property over an opinion he expressed, no matter how horrifying.

No matter what the NBA does or doesn’t do, Donald Sterling will not own the Clippers for long–at 80, he just doesn’t have that much further to go. During his remaining tenure as owner of the Clippers, we should take the opportunity to collectively, as a society, treat him as a symbol of everything we are trying to transcend. We must never forget that we made Donald Sterling. Our society produced him, our society allowed him to buy an NBA team in the first place, to make vast piles of money mistreating his tenants. It was the America Sterling grew up in that made him the racist and the scumbag that he is. Now we must live with what we’ve done, and that means leaving Donald Sterling there, sitting at the sidelines of those Clipper games, reminding us of what we were and must no longer be.


The NBA has banned Sterling from the league for life, fined him $2.5 million (the maximum allowed under the constitution) and is attempting to sell his team without his consent. I’ve gotten some interesting comments on this piece, so I thought I would add a little thought experiment onto it:

Imagine a local McDonald’s franchise. It has an owner, an owner who, like Donald Sterling, has signed up to a franchise agreement. Let’s call the owner of our imaginary McDonald’s “Bob”. Let’s say that Bob lives in a deeply republican, conservative, Christian town. However, Bob is a staunch liberal atheist. Bob’s liberal atheism becomes known. All of the people in the town are dismayed and distraught to find out that Bob is a godless person who likes Obamacare. His workers, his managers, his customers, they all consider Bob’s liberalism morally repulsive, and many of them vow to refuse to work for Bob’s McDonald’s or to patronize it. As a result, Bob’s franchise begins to make less money, which means that the McDonald’s corporation earns less revenue from it.

The people running McDonald’s realize that if they just sell Bob’s McDonald’s to a conservative Christian, sales will improve and the corporation will generate more revenue. There’s nothing in the franchise agreement Bob signed that prohibited him from expressing political, moral, and religious opinions. Because Bob is being forced to sell, Bob will get less money than he otherwise would for his franchise.

Is what McDonald’s does to Bob okay? If it’s not, neither is what the NBA is trying to do to Donald Sterling by forcing him to sell. The ban and the fine are okay, but the forced selling is expropriation on the basis of a franchise owner’s moral views, and regardless of what the law says or doesn’t say, that is wrong.