Jewish Journal

The Rebuke of Donald Sterling

by Susan Esther Barnes

April 30, 2014 | 1:30 am

Photo from Wikimedia

Donald Sterling, assuming the voice on the recording released this week is really his and hasn’t been altered in any significant way, said some despicable things. Many people were, quite understandably, outraged. On Tuesday of this week, he was banned from the NBA, which is also going to try to force him to sell his basketball team, the Clippers. This was seen by many to be a fitting rebuke for his actions. I’m not so sure.

First, the question that bears asking is, “Why is it this incident that caused this reaction?” I ask not because the incident should not have caused a strong reaction. Rather, I ask because there are other things Sterling has done in the past which also should have caused a strong negative reaction, but did not. For instance, Sterling has been the subject of lawsuits in the Los Angeles area in which he has been accused of not wanting to rent apartments he owns to African American or Latino residents.

Yes, saying he doesn’t want his mistress to associate publicly with people because of their race is a terrible thing, but if she had followed his “advice” and not posted some pictures or had not invited some people to a ball game, that still doesn’t seem as bad to me as him denying deserving people a place to live. So why the outcry now and not then?

“…You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him,” says Leviticus 19:17. If we allow Sterling to say and do these things and we don’t rebuke him, then we are guilty of sin as well. Now, we have finally decided to rebuke him. But what method of rebuke should we use?

Certainly, I wasn’t a big fan of some of the initial actions supported by some people. For instance, some suggested boycotting the Tuesday night playoff game between the Clippers and the Warriors. It seems to me such an action would do more harm than good.

It is a playoff game, after all, so I’d hazard a guess that most of the tickets to the game were already purchased by the time this story broke. If you buy a ticket and don’t go to the game, the team owner (Sterling in this case) still gets all the profit from the ticket sales. Not attending doesn’t hurt him.

However, the members of the Clippers team, the players and coaches who have been busting their chops year after year to reach their current level of peak performance, many of whom are exactly the people harmed the most by Sterling’s words, would certainly be further hurt if no fans showed up for the game. These guys did nothing wrong. On the contrary, they did much that was right, honing their craft, only to be hit with this firestorm when they deserve the support of the public the most.

And then there’s always the average guy nobody thinks of. The people who run the concession stands, the people working in the restaurants and bars around the venue, the people who clean up afterwards. No fans at the game means wasted food that goes unsold and uneaten, as well as innocent workers sent home early without pay. A boycott of the game doesn’t seem fair to them, either.

This lifetime ban gets straight to the point. It says, “We in the NBA do not approve of you, and we do not want you among us any more. Get out and stay out.” It’s a powerful statement. In some ways, it’s a comforting one. Who wants to associate with someone who says such awful things? Get him out of sight, and let us go on with our lives.

Further, the NBA will try to force him to sell the team. It has been reported he bought the team for about $12 million, and that now it’s worth $500 million, $700 million, or more. My first reaction was, “If he sells the team for anything near what it’s worth, he will make a huge profit.”

Further lining his pockets doesn’t seem like a particularly effective rebuke to me. Would it, perhaps, be better to let him keep the team, and watch as all the best players go to work for other teams, the sponsors jump ship, the fans stop buying tickets, and the value of the franchise plummets? Hit him in his pocketbook, in a more effective way than any fine the NBA could impose. Of course, this still harms the folks I mentioned above, who run the concessions and such, but at least they’d see it coming and would have time to try to prepare for it.

After all, if we want to rebuke him, we want to do it thoroughly, and really get him back for what he did, right?

Not so fast. I left out the beginning phrase of verse 17 of Leviticus when I quoted it above. It starts, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Verse 18 goes on to say, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against members of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, we should rebuke him, but it should not be done out of malice or vengeance. The point of the rebuke is not to punish him, and it is not to perpetuate a grudge against him. In addition, and this is key, he doesn’t seem to understand what he did wrong. In the recording, he says he loves black people. He blames what he does on a culture he feels powerless to change. If we punish him and walk away, he will learn nothing. He will change nothing. The world will not be a better place, with him still in it the way he has always been, only angrier.

What if, instead, we came to him out of place of love? What if, rather than punishing him, we tried to help him see what he has been doing wrong? What if we tried to educate him?

We could start by saying, “Look. You have hurt a lot of people. We can’t have someone who doesn’t want those close to him associating with people in minority groups owning an NBA team. Doing so would fly in the face of what we believe in, and, frankly, it would be a bad business proposition for both you and the NBA. Sell the team.

“At the same time, we understand you think there is a culture you can’t change that makes you feel this way and say these things. We believe the culture is changing, and in fact has changed in much of the country. We believe these changes are happening because people of good character are working hard to make these changes. We would like to work with you to help you find ways to continue to change the culture for the better, so that all people will be treated equally. Are you willing to work with us on that?”

If he says no, then ban him from basketball. But leave the door open. Make it clear we’re willing to help him see that change is right and change is possible. Make it clear that an apology won’t do, a stint in rehab won’t atone: we’re not looking for a thin veneer of icing to try to cover over his pile of manure. Make it known we’re willing to delve into that manure with him, to work with him in it, side by side, until we can, together, make some flowers grow from it in the form of real change.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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