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NBA lifetime ban of Donald Sterling signals NFL and NCAA to follow example

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Leadership makes a difference. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team, has been banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million. With this decisive move, the NBA exercised the discretion that all private sports clubs have, but few seem prepared to put into action. Sterling offended many Americans, including President Obama, with offensive racist comments reported by website this past weekend.

According to a report published on the website today, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced at a press conference today that Donald Sterling will not be allowed to serve as one of the league's governors and will be fined $2.5 million. The proceeds of the fine will be used to support effective organizations that support tolerance. There was no specific mention of the Emily Post Business Etiquette Institute, but given the carelessness Sterling demonstrated in making offensive remarks, it might be a valuable next step for the NBA.

Silver made his decision after consulting with the New York law firm of Wachtell Lipton. This highlights the longstanding policy that private sports leagues have broad powers to invite and exclude members that publicly listed companies and charities do not have. A classic example was the decision of the New York Yacht Club to ban sailing champion and media magnate Ted Turner in 1980 for engaging a foreigner without American citizenship as a yachting consultant. In today’s era of globalization, that past decision seems extreme and almost incredible. The current America’s Cup champion, BMW-Oracle racing, is an international syndicate owned by both American and German companies and the team’s skipper, James Spithill, is an Australian citizen. Nonetheless, the New York Yacht Club is a private club and it has been allowed to invite and exclude members at its discretion. And the Saint Francis Yacht Club decided to exclude BMW-Oracle racing lead owner Larry Ellison based on the preference of many members to avoid public attention.

The NBA’s leadership on this issue poses a challenge for the NFL’s handling of volleys of offensive remarks Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins spewed at teammate Jonathan Martin. Martin, a graduate of top ranked Stanford University, is also an African American so that the NBA’s precedent of assessing fines for tolerance education would seem like a good idea under these circumstances. In addition, the investigation showed that offensive language also included anti-Japanese racial slurs directed against an assistant trainer. But the NFL’s response seems meek and ineffective in comparison to the bold leadership demonstrated by the NBA. Dolphin’s owner Stephen Ross has been allowed to escape any serious responsibility for the incidents and has not been obliged to make amends to Martin in a way that would discourage future incidents. The NFL is not instituting any prohibitions against the Dolphins simply releasing Martin from his contract, the type of behavior generally associated with five year olds screaming “I’m not talking to you.”

The Dolphins harassment expose spotlighted the undereporting of systemic racial slurs and discrimination against Asian Americans in professional sports. The 2013 documentary “Linsanity” also showed how many Americans simply look the other way when Asian athletes are subjected to offensive racial slurs or are rejected for athletic scholarships by coaches who tend to select players in their own image. The documentary includes footage from NCAA games in which Lin played, but to date, the NCAA has not done anything effective about this.