Why Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos could protect Donald Sterling
Donald Sterling is an old man, with old, crooked views, and enough money to be comfortable living as a horrific human. Part of me wishes I could call him a dying breed. I wish it because I want the type of disconnected, vile racism that sits within him to go away forever, like a child wishing for Santa to stay for breakfast. An optimist might find the faith to believe that it will indeed go away, but any gambler knows where to place their money. Many men and women (both smarter than me and with more direct perspectives) have dissected Sterling’s comments, and I don’t have a compelling reason to add another regurgitated article to the pile.
Except the story isn’t complete.
You see, we have the bad guy and we know why he is wrong, but we have missed the fact that the jury of owners responsible for doling out the punishment will be setting a precedent that will, essentially, only apply to them. That is the real story: how far would you go in punishing a man who has been tried and convicted by the public, knowing that whatever you decide would be applied just to you in the future? What punishment would a jury decide on if the degree of harshness or leniency they chose would be the same harshness or leniency that they would be judged with in the future?
The consideration here is that racism is so universally inappropriate and unacceptable that, if this was only about racism, I think the punishment would be both quickly and heavy. If he loses his franchise rights, I hope that he is fairly compensated for it of course…but I couldn’t be happier than to see him disassociated with the Association, because I do not think he deserves one of the 30 franchises in this great league.
But while this case is about racism, the precedent to be set will be more far-reaching than that. And I think that has to be scary to the owners. It is those same owners that may have hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars on the line, balancing on an edge between appropriate and inappropriate comments, as judged by a dynamic (and sometimes fickle) popular sentiment. Where racism is universally unacceptable, the definition of racism (and the verdict of guilt therein) varies constantly, and I bet it frightens the hell out of the older owners who haven’t kept up with the times.
For example, if we find a recording of Jerry Reinsdorf saying that Chicago should be drafting more black players because they have evolved to be better athletes than white players, is that something that should be punished? What if he continues to say that white players are less athletic, but they are smarter, and so they can absorb coaching better? Now we are starting to get into an uncomfortable fringe area of racial thought, but not necessarily malicious: it was taught in schools and colleges at times when some of the older owners were growing up.
You’d expect something like that to be an understood sensitivity…but would I trust my 70 or 80-year-old, well-meaning team owner to pace through those topics without sounding like a hurtful bigot? Do I trust that he will remember to forget those things he learned long ago which science now disputes? Hell, I still think there are nine planets in our solar system.
That is a total hypothetical (nothing but love for you, Mr. Reinsdorf) that ran through my brain when trying to get through such a complex issue. In truth, though, that isn’t the most likely scenario. The fear that I expect is being discussed in the tightest of ownership inner-circles, and especially for the Orlando Magic, isn’t about race at all.
Rich and Helen DeVos caught headlines in 2009 (and 2010, and 2011, and 2012) because of their donations to conservative groups that were supporting/sponsoring amendments to restrict the definition of marriage to exclude same-sex couples. Rich DeVos was also on Reagan’s first AIDS Commission, and has been noted as saying that he didn’t have sympathy for the AIDS patients (which were primarily gay) because it was their fault they got it. Ooph. (In fact, Amway and the Orlando Magic are still boycotted by some gay rights groups because of Rich DeVos’ comments and donations) Now, I don’t have a way to draw a direct comparison to the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s, and how far the prevailing opinion needed to sway in order for racism to be generally unacceptable, but gay rights is following that same life cycle…and is catching up rather quickly.
Imagine a scene five years from now with: 1) Rich DeVos giving another million or so to conservative groups challenging marriage equality, 2) being interviewed about it, and saying that his religious faith tells him that homosexuality is a sin for which one will go to hell, and 3) re-prints of his previous quotes about AIDS and gays are spread across sports websites and Twitter.
If the DeVos family and other owners voted to relinquish control of the Clippers franchise from Donald Sterling, would we expect a similar conversation and potential consequence for Rich DeVos? Absolutely.
Here is the tough part, though: would you support it? While you may unequivocally disagree with their position on homosexuality (as I do), the DeVos family has done amazing things for the city of Orlando, many charitable organizations, and the Orlando Magic franchise itself. He is beloved and respected by many around the league, has dumped massive amounts of money into the team, and has been both supportive and proactive in getting Magic players involved in the community. Would you want them to lose both the franchise they care for so deeply and the money that they’ve invested, and also have the city lose a major patriarch and sponsor, all because they have some backwards beliefs reinforced through being earnestly religious? Conversely, would you want a major patriarch of your city, and the owner of your favorite team, known as the financier for groups that many identify as anti-gay?
I don’t know the answer. Disagreeing with his point of view, I can see it as an extension of his free speech as long as it doesn’t lead to discrimination for the Magic, the arena, or the fans. Much like the recently ousted Mozilla CEO (which Andrew Sullivan covered much better than me), I don’t want the blow back against unpopular (even backwards), but non-malicious beliefs to be so fierce that the freedom of one’s opinions must mean the restriction of another’s…because that is exactly what we should be fighting against. Of course, the counterpoint here is that actively restricting gay marriage is a type of discrimination in and of itself, and financial support for it makes one just as culpable.
Frankly, the one thing I do know is that our marriage equality debate is such a complex issue that you should definitely NOT be getting your answers from me (nor any sports blog, for that matter). The highlight is that progress comes with each new generation, and we can see quite clearly the divide between the oldest generation’s and youngest generation’s principles when it comes to both racism and gay rights. Important to this conversation as well, though, is that the same older generation is the one who owns sports teams. Oh, and the younger generation is the one that can force anything viral in moments.
For Donald Sterling, his is a case of discrimination. Discrimination both in his life as a landlord, refusing to rent to African-American and Hispanic people, and also now as the owner of the Clippers, tasking someone to not bring/not allow a black person to attend a game. Unfortunately, I think the punishment will be lighter than it should, and lighter than we should want. It won’t be because the other owners want to help Sterling, but simply because the other owners are scared that they will hurt themselves. Making everyone responsible for their own actions is easy…that is, until “everyone” includes you.