The Donald Sterling situation has created a fascinating case study of the ethics of sports. There are so many players surrounding this incident, and it has caused a lot of discussion about whether the actions of these players have been right or wrong. I’m not as interested in right or wrong in this case though. Right and wrong is too subjective to analyze in a fair way. The ethics of each of these players, while not completely objective, is much more objective and deserves discussion. In this article, we will be looking at the different players in the Donald Sterling situation and whether their actions were ethical or unethical.
To begin, it will be useful to note the differences between ethics and morals. Morals are beliefs or principles that each person has about what is right and wrong. Morals vary by person and usually share similarities across cultures and subcultures. If a person acts against their morals, unless illegal or unethical, the consequences are internal. Ethics are expectations about how people should act in a group. Ethics aren’t personally held. Ethics are held by a group and are dependent on the group for definition. Ethics are frequently based around laws regulating the group as well as commonly held morals across the group. If a person acts against their ethics, unless illegal, the consequences are within the group and frequently lead to peer disapproval (and societal disapproval if the actions have a negative societal impact) and punishment within the group.
Okay, let’s start this off with the man himself…
Action: During a private conversation with his mistress, Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, was recorded making racist comments regarding black people, a group that makes up more than 70% of NBA players. It is unclear whether Sterling was aware that he was being recorded. During NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s investigation, Sterling admitted to making these comments. He has yet to offer an apology or show any signs of remorse for his comments.
Consequences: Sterling was banned for life from all Los Angeles Clippers activity and from any association with the NBA. It appears that he will be forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers by the NBA Board of Governors (the other team owners), which is something Commissioner Silver encouraged.
Ethics: Sterling’s morals don’t align with those of the vast majority of US citizens. They especially don’t align with the ethics of the NBA. The NBA is one of the more progressive leagues regarding race relations. African American’s make up a large majority of the league’s players and a large portion of the league’s fans. Comments like Sterling’s harm the league’s black players, not physically but mentally. Thus, Sterling’s comments are unethical through the prism of the NBA. Beyond that, in the US, it has become socially unethical for a person in a position of power to be racially bigoted (unless that person’s power is derived from a group that is inherently bigoted, like the Ku Klux Klan). Thus, Sterling’s comments are unethical through the prism of US society.
Action: V. Stiviano, Sterling’s mistress, recorded the conversation where Sterling made racist comments regarding black people. It is unclear if Stiviano released these recordings to TMZ or if somebody else acquired them and released them to TMZ.
Consequences: Stiviano has been nearly universally declared a gold digger and, to a degree, shamed by the media and society. She was also maligned by many for recording Sterling without his knowledge, but some of those opinions are changing due to claims that Sterling requested that Stiviano record conversations with him.
Ethics: It is unclear whether Stiviano acted ethically or unethically when recording Sterling. If Sterling asked her to record their conversations, then she acted ethically in doing so. If Sterling did not actually request that Stiviano record their conversations, then she acted unethically and illegally. No matter if recording the conversation what ethical or not, Stiviano acted unethically by allowing the recording to be put in a position to be released to the media. The ethics or being a mistress dictate that privacy be maintained surrounding the relationship. So if Stiviano released the recording herself, she clearly acted unethically. If Stiviano didn’t release the recording, then she still exposed others to the recordings and they released them. This is akin to telling a significant other’s most intimate secrets to people, which is unethical. Stiviano’s situation is difficult though, because her actions were in one way or another unethical, but they likely aligned with her morals.
Action: TMZ released the recording of Sterling making racist comments regarding black people.
Consequences: TMZ has only profited from releasing the recording of Sterling. They undoubtedly received a significant amount of ad revenue due to the popularity of this story and have even been given some legitimacy as a news breaker.
Ethics: Ethics in news is something of a grey area. The primary ethical consideration in most of the news media is not to reveal private sources. TMZ has protected the identity of their source during this whole incident. This story has hurt a lot of people, angered many more people, and put the NBA at risk. Yet they acted ethically as the external effects are a byproduct of the function of the news media.
Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner
Action: Adam Silver banned Sterling from all Los Angeles Clippers activity and from any association with the NBA. Silver also indicated that he will urge the NBA Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers.
Consequences: Silver has been primarily praised for banning Sterling for life. Some have criticized Silver for banning Sterling as they believe he is imposing his morals on Sterling and violating Sterling’s right to free speech.
Ethics: Silver acted ethically by punishing Sterling. Sterling acted unethically and required punishment in some form. The severity of the punishment was also ethical. The primary ethical imperative for Silver is to protect the NBA and punishing Sterling in a less severe fashion likely would have led to the NBA’s revenues and reputation being negatively impacted. If Silver had given a less severe punishment, many if not all of the players playing on Tuesday were going to boycott their games. This would have led to decreased broadcast revenue and would have left an indelibly negative mark on the NBA’s reputation. Thus Silver’s actions were ethical.
Clippers Players and Coaches
Action: The Clippers players wore their shooting shirts inside-out during Sunday’s game. There was talk of further action until Silver banned Sterling.
Consequences: Other teams, notably the Miami Heat and the Memphis Grizzlies, echoed the Clippers’ actions by turning their shooting shirts inside-out in their next games. Some have criticized the players for not doing more.
Ethics: The Clippers players acted ethically. Their action was a form of criticism toward Sterling’s comments which aligned with the NBA’s ethics. They also went out and played which aligns with the players’ ethical imperative to try to win games and play for their fans. They could have acted more severely and done something like had the Los Angeles Clippers logos removed from their gear or delayed the game in protest and still have been ethical.
Non-Clippers Players and Coaches
Action: Some teams echoed the Clippers’ actions by wearing their shooting shirts inside-out. It is also rumored that all of the teams playing on Tuesday night were going to boycott their games until Sterling’s punishment was announced.
Consequences: The player’s rumored Tuesday boycott likely put pressure on Silver to ban Sterling. So their actions likely contributed to the result they wanted.
Ethics: Ethically, the players needed to speak out against Sterling’s comments, which they did in interviews and by turning their shooting shirts inside-out. Boycotting games is a grey area. Players had an ethical imperative to try to win games and play for their fans, but they also had an ethical imperative to speak out against Sterling’s comments. It really came down to what they as a group deemed more important, playing or protesting. Since the boycott was organized across teams, the ethical priority was given to protesting Sterling. So even if the players had boycotted their games, they still would have been acting ethically.
Actions: There was widespread condemnation for Sterling’s comments. Protests outside of the Clippers home court, the Staples Center, were organized. Many fans were not going to attend Clippers home games and some weren’t going to attend Clippers road games.
Consequences: The fans’ actions likely helped lead to Sterling’s punishment and undoubtedly contributed toward the Clippers advertisers either suspending or terminating their relationship with the team.
Ethics: The fans had an ethical imperative to support their team, but they also had an ethical imperative to protest Sterling’s comments. The ethics of it came down to how each fan prioritized supporting their team vs. protesting Sterling. So whether or not fans attended Clippers games, they were acting ethically.