SportsProf

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The "Sterling Line"

In the movie "42," there was a scene where Branch Rickey asked his advisors -- publicity man Harold Parrott and scout Clyde Sukeforth -- their opinions about signing Jackie Robinson.  Sukeforth offered some interesting advice, namely, that if you break a law, people might find you clever, but if you break an unwritten code they'll ostracize you forever.  That and the Donald Sterling mess, along with Riley Cooper's situation with the Philadelphia Eagles last season and then Delmon Young's incident with an Orthodox Jewish man in New York got me to thinking.  That, and, also, Penn State football coach James Franklin's contacts with an alleged rape victim while he served in the same capacity at Vanderbilt.  And that thinking boiled down to -- when do we permit people to make mistakes, when do we have a zero tolerance policy, does it matter what race they are and comment on, does it matter how hot the issue is at the moment, does it matter as to demographics, does it matter as to who has power and influence -- and, of course, should it.

Look, it's hard to defend Sterling, and while on the one hand it's good that the NBA acted quickly on the other hand they always had better make sure that they don't railroad anyone on allegations.  The annals of history are littered with rushes to judgment, destroyed lives and souls of nations.  No, I am not martyring Donald Sterling, but let's be sure that in the same vain that everyone deserves a vigorous defense that we all be careful that everyone take care that there aren't rushes to judgment on the one hand and free passes given out because, well, there aren't many Jews in the world, baseball players are more important, Delmon Young wasn't exactly contrite, and, who the heck gives a crap because he's an average baseball player and Jews only make up 0.2% of the world's population, when compared to the demographics of the NBA players, particularly.  To me, there isn't any room for any of this behavior, period.

Which begs the question -- where is the line drawn now?  Riley Cooper stays (after a particular generous display of forgiveness from Michael Vick, among others), has a great season and gets rewarded with a big contract.  Delmon Young's career hardly skipped a beat.  Right now, James Franklin's star is rising.  Players who have slurred gays have not suffered any consequences so far as I an tell.  Has the "Sterling Line" been drawn, i.e., that there will be zero tolerance for this sort of thing in professional sports, period?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination and who show hypocrisy by dating women of color?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination and who show hypocrisy in dating women of color and who are dumb enough to say things that can be repeated?

Which is it?  If the "Sterling Line" is very clear that no "bad behavior" of this sort will be tolerated, the many professional sports leagues and teams are in all sorts of trouble already.  That would be my guess.  If the "Sterling Line" is ambiguous, based on facts, circumstances, what the person's position is, demographics, etc., then it risks being akin to "trial by the media."  If it's somewhere in between, then it's going to be very hard to define.  But suppose that a Magic Johnson were to come out and say that he thinks white players are inferior and that he never trusted owners because they were white (by the way, to be crystal clear, Johnson has not, to my knowledge, said anything of the sort).  What would his punishment be?  And is the hypothetical statement I posit any worse than what Mr. Sterling said?

And therein lies the conundrum.  The matter of Donald Sterling presented an easy target.  But others might or might not.  And then what happens?   The Reverend Jesse Jackson, when he ran for President, referred to New York as "Hymietown," a direct slur on Jews.  Riley Cooper used the "n" word at a Kenny Chesney concert toward an African-American security guard.  Delmon Young had his anti-Semitic incident.  All are still around; Sterling is gone.  So the question remains -- how do we decide and who decides?

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