Let’s start with the obvious. Behind every great fortune is a great crime and, with the exception of the 364,122 owners of the Green Bay Packers, there’s no owner in pro sports who does not have some blood under their buffed fingernails. This is a club of billionaires, and that kind of money doesn’t come from scratching Lotto tickets.
Let’s also state the obvious and say that Donald Sterling is hardly the sole racist who calls the owner’s box his home. If you think he is, I have some Lady Gaga tickets at the Verizon Center to sell you. One person who works amongst the owners in major North American sport e-mailed me just to say, “I can tell you off the record about at least three of these guys who talk in a way straight from the Donald Sterling handbook.”
But even though many owners are far from cuddly creatures and have taken part in “wealth building” exercises that make Sterling’s archipelago of slums look like a side project, we should not be cynical about what just took place in the NBA. In fact, we should embrace it.
History has been made with the banning of Donald Sterling. Dating back to the uprooting of Chavez Ravine to create Dodgers Stadium, we have seen professional sports use “eminent domain” to separate people from their property to build their sports cathedrals. Here we have Adam Silver and the NBA owners lining up to seize the property of Donald Sterling not only because he is an embarrassment and a bigot but, most critically, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, because of a “pattern of behavior.” (Sterling will of course be compensated to a far greater degree than those kicked out of their homes to build stadiums.)
That pointed reference to Sterling’s years as a slumlord immediately raises the issue of what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fearfully called the “slippery slope.” As Cuban said, “If it’s about racism and we’re ready to kick people out of the league, OK? Then what about homophobia?… What about somebody who’s anti-Semitic? What about a xenophobe? In this country, people are allowed to be morons.” I can’t speak for Cuban, but given the billions in public dollars handed to owners in public financing, tax breaks and public trust, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the owner of a franchise not be a raving bigot. But Cuban also of course pointedly ignores that Sterling was a bigot in word and deed. Mark Cuban is not, to use his language, “a moron.” The real fear that beats in his libertarian heart is that the harm caused by Donald Sterling’s business practices could be used against other owners as well. After all, if we start judging in the public square how billionaires make their money, few would dare to even leave their house.