Donald Sterling’s Personal Foul, Ctd

Many readers are asking along these lines:

Nice post on Sterling. Now the $64,000 question: Is it permissible, in your view, for Sterling to face sanctions for his comments? Or do you believe that it’s improper for the NBA or its customers to call for Sterling to face consequences for his words? If so, why not? But if not, why is this situation different from the Eich affair?

To respond to each question in turn: yes, of course, if an owner of a business makes baldly racist remarks urging public dissociation from an entire racial group, private sector sanctions – from the NBA or fans or sponsors – are “permissible.” They are always permissible in a free country. That’s why Brendan Eich is out of a job. The second question is whether what is permissible is proper or justified, and that will always depend on the specific case. I think it’s obviously appropriate in the Sterling case – because the remarks are horrifyingly racist. If Brendan Eich had made comments telling his friends to keep away from faggots, if he’d used any such terminology or had ever been shown to have discriminated against gays in the workplace or in his daily interactions, then his case would be very similar. But no such comments are in the public or private record, and there’s zero evidence that he ever acted in the workplace to harm gay employees. Au contraire, which is why gay Mozilla employees were divided about his ouster, with some supporting him. Sterling’s remarks, in contrast, reveal him to be a crude, foul bigot – which is why there is no division at all among African-Americans in the league – or beyond the league – about his fate.

Unfiltered feedback from readers on our Facebook page. One makes this distinction:

“Eich contributed to a successful campaign that actually stripped gay couples of existing rights, whereas Sterling is being assailed because of private remarks made in a phone call.”

Here is what I would say to that.

Yes, Eich did – even though the result was subsequently overturned thanks, in part, to Chad Griffin and AFER. But donating to a political cause or voting for a political party can have many motivations. Such acts can be driven by bigotry, sure, but also by general discomfort with sudden social change, religious conviction, misunderstandings, personal experiences, worries about unintended consequences, and the like. And you cannot know that Eich was motivated by rank Sterling-level bigotry – in fact, we have plenty of evidence that he wasn’t and isn’t. And remember too what was on the ballot in 2008. The choice was either civil marriage or civil unions with all the state-accorded rights and benefits of civil marriage. Now I have long argued that civil unions are no substitute for civil marriage – but am I prepared to say that everyone who disagrees with me is motivated by the kind of rank bigotry that Sterling represents? Of course not. That was the position of the Human Rights Campaign for many years, after all. They may be tools, opportunists, resource-hoggers and credit-grabbers, but they’re not bigots. It was the middle ground favored by at least a third of Americans at one point. They weren’t and aren’t all bigots of the Sterling variety. And I think the term “bigot” should be reserved for those like Sterling who have demonstrated it without a shadow of a doubt.