LOPRESTI: NBA’s verdict satisfies, but Sterling case begs tough question

May 3, 2014

mike lopresti sportsThe NBA’s nightmare has passed, and some of the messages left behind are clear.

One of them is, this is what you get when you wink at wrong and allow an infection such as Donald Sterling to go unattended. An ugly story could land right in the middle of a highly entertaining post-season, just when everyone is starting to pay attention.

The Sterling fiasco also proved once again that it is seldom good news when the owner of a sports team is in the headlines. Usually he has done something foolish, or his team is in crisis, or he has fallen to a personal demon, or he’s asking the taxpayers for more money.

It almost always means trouble. In Indiana, we know a little something about that. April gave us Donald Sterling’s outrageous words, but March gave us Jim Irsay’s mug shot.

We also learned that, sometimes, the correct punishment is too obvious for anyone to miss. A rattlesnake has less venom and more defenders than the defrocked owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

And we were reminded how tumultuous times and chaotic moments have a way of identifying those made of the sternest substance. Say hello to Doc Rivers.

But at least one lesson from the past week is more complex, more troubling, and has nothing to do with race. The unmasking of Sterling was necessary and just, and most would argue the ends justified the means.

But now, in the calmer aftermath, we need to talk a little about the means.

Let us propose that you are an owner, coach, athlete, celebrity, whoever. You are being watched. You are being listened to. You are being recorded. And you are fair game to the TMZs of the world. Your home is no protection, and your assumption of privacy is a delusion.

Is everyone OK with that? Is that the road we want to travel?

Because we’re on it. Few begged to differ during the Sterling downfall, because his words disclosed such a mean-spirited heart. Few paused to care that he was outed by questionable tactics.

In the heat of the inferno that the story became, raising doubts about the means would have sounded too much like an excuse and a defense and sympathy for a man who had no excuse and no defense and earned no sympathy. By popular opinion, he got what was coming to him.

But what happens next time, when the 21st century wing of the media lands a juicy one? When the words are not hateful, but just stupid or embarrassing? Who draws the line and decides what is right and what is wrong, and when it is proper to invade a private conversation and spread it online and on the air?

The folks at outlets such as TMZ, who thrive on scandal and pay for dirt? Will they be the arbiters of your privacy?

Once again, is everyone OK with that?

It has been said in recent days that the hammer so rightfully dropped on Sterling put the other NBA owners on notice. They now need to watch what they say and reconsider what they think. Everywhere.

It is a given that anyone who shares the attitudes Sterling expressed has no business within a light year of the NBA, or most anywhere else. But what if the speaker on someone else’s ill-gotten tape happens to have unpopular opinions on politics or abortion rights or religion?

What does the commissioner do then? What is intolerable, and what is just loopy? I find no page in the NBA constitution that addresses that.

And how close at that moment do we get to 1984’s Thought Police? Except instead of handcuffs, they now come with websites.

Questions, questions, questions. That is the way it always is with a scandal. The emotions of the moment tend to simplify what is good and what is evil. Do this! Do that! The knottier, more subtle and often more difficult issues come later.

The villain in the Sterling case is pretty clear. Perhaps he had to be discovered this very way before the league would act. The NBA’s hard line is to be applauded. The outrage and hurt from all those of color in the NBA is to be understood. The sanctioning of a bigot is to be championed.

But life is not always so clear-cut. There is the oft-mentioned slippery slope to avoid. The world of rapid communication, social media and constant surveillance is not noted for its rational and circumspect judgment.

We can cheer that a man’s words in private could be used to make the NBA a better place. There is ample cause. But we should also take a moment to consider the unforeseen future, and be careful what we wish for.•


Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mlopresti@ibj.com.

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