Friday, May 2, 2014

On Donald Sterling, Jewish bigots, free speech, privacy and consequences

Not long after my Bar Mitzvah, I stayed at the home of an orthodox rabbi on a Friday night to see how ultra-religious Jews celebrated the Sabbath. I bunked in the same bedroom as the rabbi's son, who was about my age, and we talked for a little while to get to know each other. About a half-hour into the conversation, he was discussing the neighborhood his school was in ... and he used the n-word twice. I asked something like, "Did you have problems with them?" His response: "Nah, I just don't like (n-words)."

That pretty much ended our conversation. I wasn't confident enough in myself back then to admonish him on the spot or to tell his parents what he said, but I wasn't going to get swept up into this world. As the only Jewish kid in my grade school, I had heard plenty of taunts; as a guy who had befriended the few black kids in my neighborhood, I knew that racism existed and was ugly. I tried to go to sleep but tossed and turned until finally drifting off some time later.

The episode did affect my Jewishness. As a newly minted teenager, I already was questioning my faith (among other things). And now here came this son of a rabbi, and he was filled with hate. He didn't even have a reason for it. I remember thinking, "This is somebody who professes to be Jewish, somebody who claims to believe in a benevolent God?"

Which brings us to Donald Sterling. His real name is Donald Tokowitz. And, as we all know by now, he is a Racist with a capital R.

I'm always amazed when a person whose lineage traces back to a long-persecuted people can be so hateful and bigoted toward another long-persecuted people. You'd think Jews would have empathy for blacks and other racial, ethnic and religious minorities. When the Jewish person instead is filled with bile, it is, in my mind, a little tragedy. It certainly doesn't speak well for how God supposedly oversees us all.

I won't go into Sterling's transgressions because we've all heard them by now. His punishment? He eventually will be forced to sell the L.A. Clippers, reaping a mere $1 billion or so on his original $12 million investment.

See? Jews are good with money!

Some are trying to make this a free-speech issue. It isn't. Sterling is free to say whatever he wants. And the private organization to which he belongs -- the NBA Board of Governors -- is free to punish him. If you work for a private company and you are overhead saying the exact same things Sterling said, hopefully your company will ban you for life, too.

Because Sterling was recorded by an angry girlfriend, who might have goaded him into showing his hateful self, some are trying to make this a privacy issue. It isn't. Just because those comments came out in such circumstances, it doesn't mean Sterling's peers should have ignored them. He DID say them. He obviously believes every word he said. If you send what you think is a private email to a co-worker belittling your boss, your boss has every right to fire you. You will not be protected by any kind of right to privacy.

Were this a court of law, he couldn't be convicted. But it isn't a court of law. He doesn't have the protections of speech and privacy. He signed a league constitution binding him to rules of order and he violated those rules of order.

Some have equated this to hateful comments that black NBA players have made against gay people or putdowns of white players. In the future, will the NBA also ban players for life for insensitive or bigoted remarks? Well, no.

For one thing, players are protected by a union. The NBA couldn't even make stick a year-long suspension of Latrell Sprewell, who famously choked his coach in front of witnesses. A player might get a slap on the wrist for racist comments, but there is no way he will be banned for life.

But that's a double-standard, isn't it? Perhaps, but the two situations are far more dissimilar than they are similar. A player has little power. He doesn't hire and fire coaches, he doesn't decide if a department manager should be promoted or demoted, he doesn't establish a pay scale for secretaries and janitors. His bigotry is distasteful, but he doesn't have the power to use it for evil.

Long before this incident, Sterling left a trail of discrimination lawsuits, allegations of mistreatment and the like. His NBA peers have long wanted to rid themselves of him. This latest incident gives them an "in" to do it -- kind of like Al Capone finally getting nabbed for tax evasion.

Well, how about those who worry that this is a slippery slope? Will every owner who is caught on tape saying something disparaging that he thought was private be forced to sell a franchise he worked so hard to build?

Certainly, precedent now has been set. But let's not get overly dramatic here. Maybe people actually will start thinking before they talk. Now there's a crazy notion. We can't answer the broader question until we see how it plays out.

Finally, given Sterling's history, one person who comes out looking particularly bad is recently retired NBA commish David Stern. While his replacement, Adam Silver, has come out of this looking golden for the swift, strong stance he has taken, Stern has the smell of an enabler who turned a blind eye toward Sterling's longstanding racist acts.

Stern certainly wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers. He fined Mark Cuban so much and so often for ripping referees over the years that the Mavericks' owner might as well have set up direct deposit from his bank account to the NBA's coffers.

Here's hoping Stern wasn't giving Sterling a pass because they share the same religion.

Being Jewish never has been easy. Beyond the overt and covert bigotry that has persisted for thousands of years, entire nations and religions want nothing more than to eliminate all Jews from the face of the earth.

So it's especially sad and disheartening when Jews are guilty of narrow-mindedness, intolerance and hate.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these thoughts - exactly on point as always! You should check out Operation Understanding DC, a group that brings together high-school-aged Jewish and African-American kids in the DC area for a year of study and travel, as an example of how these two groups can coexist positively and learn from each other!