To be the kajillionth dude writing about the Donald Sterling controversy had me thinking twice about doing it. However, now that we are almost a month removed from the Racist Comments Heard Round the World, I think we can reflect on the events (and the national discussion) in ways that we could not a couple weeks ago. Not every scandal or controversy (sports or otherwise) has me as riveted as this one, and I think part of this is because of the swift and extreme reaction.
After the tapes of Sterling’s ridiculously nonsensical and bigoted ramblings were released, it was met with widespread condemnation instantly. Why? Because we knew (or were quickly informed) of Sterling’s horrid past. Still, we are used to seeing a backlash to the backlash, right? A counterpoint to the initial opinion. I mean, remember the Richard Sherman Incident last January? Almost immediately following the outrage over Sherman’s rant was a defense of either his actions or Sherman himself. People brought up how he was still in the heat of the moment or his Stanford education (as if either of those are actual excuses for classless behavior). Not that you can equate blatantly racist remarks with postgame competitive trash talk, but Sherman is no longer really seen as a full-on villain. A counter had formed on the Internet and other places that didn’t allow him to be universally reviled.
With the Sterling controversy, there was no other side to take. His comments were akin to those of a plantation owner and no reasonable person could defend him. He’s a racist dinosaur in an age of smartphones and Twitter.
However, is this kind of one-sided reaction the best thing for our future? I’m not so sure. In this case, I’m not really talking about the reaction to Sterling’s comments, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the NBA’s decision to boot him from the league and force him to sell his team. For those who value nuanced conversation and greater understanding, this kind of Twitter pile-on – where there is no room for any further discussion – is not something we should welcome.
To be clear, the NBA probably did what they had to do. With a potential player boycott during the playoffs threatening the short term and an anemic franchise due to no one wanting to play there looming over the long term, Adam Silver didn’t have much of a choice. While the NBA looked the other way during Sterling’s previous issues, they couldn’t allow him to stay in the league after this.
However, that doesn’t mean this is a simple situation. It is still immensely complex, even if most people would rather see it as cut-and-dry. This is where that Internet groupthink comes in. With all the Sterling condemnation raining down, there wasn’t any allowance for clarification or perspective. What about the fact that these comments were made in private and sleazily released to TMZ? Surely freedom of speech has to fit into this somehow?
I’m not saying Sterling shouldn’t be punished or banned, I’m speaking more about the precedent this sets. When a team’s owner can be forced to sell his team because of personal views that were privately expressed and then illegally recorded for public consumption, what does that mean for the future? I only saw two high-profile figures even wondering about this issue. Soon after the release of Sterling’s tape, Mark Cuban made the point that this is a “slippery slope”. He expressed concern that the league could hand down extreme punishment because of “what people say and think, as opposed to what they do”. Of course, soon after the NBA banned Sterling, Cuban tweeted his full support of the decision, possibly thinking it’s not worth it to deal with the backlash that would come from semi-opposition to the NBA’s conclusion.
The second figure to openly wonder about this was actually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – yes, he of Airplane! fame. In a piece for Time, he called for outrage over not just Sterling’s racism, but the fact that intimate conversations can be sprayed all over the Internet without any foreseeable repercussions other than newfound fame and an eventual book deal. Abdul-Jabbar is essentially saying that while he is angered by racism, he is also perturbed by the violation of basic freedoms. I don’t know his politics, but here Kareem sounds straight libertarian.
Do NBA owners now have to watch what they say privately, in fear of what might happen if the wrong sound bite gets out? For example, if an owner makes comments disparaging same-sex marriage or criticizing feminists, can the league move to ban him for his views? It’s a question worth considering before we all instantly applaud Adam Silver for his decision.
In the Internet age, particularly the Twitter era, does the number of voices lead to better discussion? I would say no, it doesn’t. Groupthink can be a powerful thing. With the 160 characters of Twitter, many times complex circumstances can be oversimplified and all those voices tend to just collapse into one mindless mob. We essentially end up with discussion that is less dynamic – not more. In events such as the Sterling controversy, perusing the Internet to form your opinion can just lead to a quick dismissal of anything that might question the majority viewpoint. And, without a chance to voice a differing opinion, nothing can ever really change.