COMMENTARY | Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers NBA franchise, is in deep, deep trouble. He has received a lifetime ban from the pro basketball league and will likely be forced to sell his team in the wake of racist comments he made, reports CNN. While nobody is defending Sterling’s derogatory comments against black people, which were recorded by his girlfriend and then leaked, though she claims it was not by her, a bigger debate may only be beginning. Many commentators argue that Sterling’s bigotry should be used to prompt more discussion about racism in America…while others warn that we’re careening into a dangerous era of “gotcha!” reinforced by portable digital technology.
You see, Sterling was recorded without his knowledge. Though what he said is indefensible, is it acceptable to use his illegally-obtained words against him? While Sterling may have signed on as an NBA franchise owner knowing that he could be forced to sell his team if his actions harmed the league, can illegally-obtained recordings be the evidence forcing him to sell? Likely, this will end up court, with Sterling and his lawyers claiming that, since the recordings were gotten illegally, he cannot be held in violation of the ownership agreement.
If Sterling wins, a bigot wins. If Sterling loses, it establishes a worrisome precedent where the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine is weakened, meaning illegally-obtained evidence is still usable. Does it matter if the illegally-obtained evidence, released publicly by an unknown third party, is used in a private business agreement rather than a court of law? Does the NBA ownership agreement have a lower standard of acceptable evidence than a court of law?
It’s an important issue, and one that could impact each and every one of us. With today’s technology, anyone can be surreptitiously recorded. A slim smartphone in someone’s pocket can record any conversation, to be quickly uploaded to the Internet. Which untoward comment could be your undoing?
How many of us say things, especially among close friends, that we would not want the world to hear? As a high school teacher I hear all manner of racist, sexist, homophobic, and derogatory content, from students of all genders and races. Who among us is innocent? We may not be as bad as Donald Sterling, but who among us has not spoken ill of someone based on a status of which he or she had no control? Height, religion, appearance, intelligence, national original, sexual orientation?
We may be hasty to demand Sterling’s punishment today, but are we willing to accept something similar happening to a friend or family member – or even us – someday? The courts must rule on the acceptability of the Sterling recording as evidence in violation of his ownership agreement and we should all pay careful attention to the decision.