Earlier today, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced sanctions against Clippers owner Donald Sterling. These sanctions came down after an audio recording came to light with Sterling making racist comments in a private conversation. In the aftermath of public outrage, it also came to light that Sterling has a history of racist behavior, including discriminatory housing practices in properties that he owns. Commissioner Silver announced that Sterling is banned from the NBA, fined $2.5 million, and under pressure to relinquish his ownership.
These are hefty sanctions. And I think they are justified in light of the evidence that Sterling has a history not merely of racist views but also racist behavior. Leaders have an interest in maintaining the values of their organization–especially those that relate directly to the mission of the organization and to the expectations of their constituency.
Nevertheless, I have seen many thoughtful people raise questions about the precedent that this decision sets. The questions go like this. If the NBA can get rid of Sterling for his unpopular racial views, then can’t other organizations get rid of employees for their unpopular views on marriage? Isn’t this in fact what happened to Brendan Eich when he was recently fired as CEO of Mozilla? Why is okay when the NBA discriminates against unpopular views, but not okay when Mozilla does it?
I think these are important and legitimate questions. And let me say that I fully expect that the logic used in the NBA’s ouster of Sterling will be used against Christians and others who hold to traditional marriage. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is inconsistent to celebrate the NBA’s decision while vocally opposing Mozilla’s decision. Why? Because the two decisions are not analogous in my view.
Ironically, I find myself in agreement with Andrew Sullivan on this. Even though Sullivan supports gay marriage and I do not, he clearly sees the relevant differences between the two situations:
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.
There are many people in America who will not see the distinction that Sullivan is drawing here. And many of those people will cite the NBA’s precedent as a basis for private sector sanctions against Christians who hold a traditional view on marriage. I do not deny that such will probably happen at some point in the future. Having said that, the potential misuse of this precedent in the future is hardly a reason for denying its justice in Sterling’s case. And that is why it’s perfectly consistent to say that what Mozilla did to Eich is wrong, and what the NBA did to Sterling is right.
Denny Burk is an Professor of Biblical Studies and Ethics at Boyce College.