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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sterling, Silver: Lessons from the NBA

Leonore Draper (see number 6., below).
The recent well-documented controversy over racist remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling - and subsequent action by Commissioner Adam Silver - can inform several issues we deal with on college campuses. People have been taken aback by the audacity and hypocrisy of Mr. Sterling's conduct. His characterization of his players, not as wage-earners, but as beneficiaries of his generosity for food, clothes, and cars evokes images of the plantation owner. His conversations with his girlfriend about her behavior (when that girlfriend is being sued by Mr. Sterling's wife to get back the gifts Donald gave the woman) are offensive, not only for their racism, but for the utter lack of regard he shows for women - particularly those he supposedly cares about.

Commissioner Silver's swift, firm, and decisive action is being lauded by virtually everyone not named Donald Sterling. It is a rare instance of a decision-maker and leader seemingly throwing caution to the wind and doing the right thing, even if it might invite a lawsuit. Certainly he consulted owners and considered legal consequences, but it is millionaire money at the end of the day, and a lawsuit won't bankrupt the league. A weak response could do some harm, though. And it appears he knew a lack of firm leadership could result in playoff boycotts (which were being threatened), loss of sponsorship, and years of mistrust between ownership and players. Still, he did a sniff test and did the right thing.

But I don't write to dissect the conduct of Donald Sterling, per se. There are lessons here, however, for those of us in higher education:

1. Racism and misogyny still live in the hearts of many.
Why do colleges and universities care so much about diversity and social issues? Because racism is morally wrong, but also because for the under-represented to have an equal chance they need an even playing field. Offering access to racially, culturally, religiously, sexually-oriented, and socioeconomically diverse students makes for a better educational experience for all students. It is fair and right. Embracing, rather than marginalizing students, and helping all students flourish in an emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe environment is imperative.

I meet from time-to-time with our diverse student groups on campus. They deal with issues, beyond ism-ism that others don't: assimilation with others in balance with a supportive cohort group (why do you all eat together?); serving as spokespersons for their groups; and even being the ambassadors of their groups - feeling subtle pressure to make only positive impressions. All schools are one drunk-with-a-magic-marker away from a Sterling-esque incident. Such are followed by forums, task forces, and damage control... until the next incident.

If racism can prevail in a league with such a large African-American population you can bet it is everywhere. It has no place in sports, and no place in the marketplace of ideas that is higher education. In other words, we will keep addressing issues of diversity and social justice.

2. Grassroots efforts to address social justice issues work.
Coach Doc Rivers and his team made appropriately measured comments and acted with peaceful civil unrest. This was an easy case in which to do so, because there is not a lot of wiggle room based on the Sterling tapes. History is filled with the victims of injustice rising up against oppression. Mr. Sterling's words were hardly oppressive by comparison. But the hate and ignorance cut to the core of the players (and most others). So they took action.

The student displeasure with handling of recent sexual misconduct cases, offers an excellent example of students showing that they can mobilize about something that truly matters, and see their opinions and actions make a difference.

3. Free speech is a fundamental value nationally and on college campuses.
While Mr. Sterling may say what he wants, there are consequences. The first amendment is about the rights of citizens to challenge their government openly. It is different in private matters. This may surprise people who read me, but I have many more opinions than I have ever expressed here over the years. But I have an employer, I am here by choice, and I generally love Trinity University. And I like being paid. But I can't say whatever I want. Mr. Sterling wasn't taking a stand. He was running off at the mouth. I think people would care more about his free speech, if it was to fight injustice, not demonstrate it.

We don't have free speech zones on our campus. I feel like the whole campus should be a free speech zone. This is what learning is all about. I urge my staff not to be the ones to remove questionable postings on bulletin boards, for example. Or at least give our students the first chance at it. I learned this once, the hard way. And while I felt righteous, I robbed our students of a chance to act with courage. While we must, as administrators, denounce such bigoted behavior, and participate or lead the conversations, I have seen better results when students set the standards of the community. That is where learning blossoms. Years ago some conservative students held a bake sale, that they thought mirrored affirmative action. Students were beginning to push back. Some on the staff were offended by what they felt were undertones of racism and shut it down. Guess what... The bake sale sponsors became first amendment martyrs and all of the learning was lost. The discussions about the event turned into a debate about free speech.

4. It has been interesting to watch the process unfold.
Indeed, the NBA is a privately-run organization (not unlike Trinity University). Mr. Sterling was not facing jail time or execution. He did not meet the code of conduct expected of him and was removed. Presumably the NBA Board of Governors has some policies and some procedures in place (not legal due process), and is implementing its process fairly. The parallels can be instructive in campus conduct systems, where generally the courts have held that students have the right to know of the allegations against them, deserve timely notice, and should be able to refute and challenge the evidence against them. People have freedom to attend institutions they are eligible to attend - and pay for. They also make choices and face consequences. They are accountable for their actions. The institution has a responsibility to the individual, but also the greater community and to protect its reputation.

5. Social media and talk radio/TV have changed everything.
Having been the target of false information and rushes to judgment, I have experienced this firsthand. I hate that a small part of me has this nagging feeling that we have seen a person vilified in the media, on late-night talk shows, and in the court of public opinion in such a rash manner. It feels mob-like. Justified or not, I have never been a fan of mobs. While I don't like the comments from Mr. Sterling and don't care for his actions in any form, I am just uncomfortable with how fast everything happened. The swift action of Mr. Silver is applauded by prominent people everywhere. People have latched onto the sound-bite, had their need for justice satiated, posted their tweets, and are ready for the next controversy in which to insert themselves. Maybe I need to get used to that. I am not one who takes a long time to form opinions, so I should like this. I hate congressional hearings and chest-thumping. I just feel uneasy, though I don't want to.

Several years ago a group of students went dorm-to-dorm, pulling late-night fire alarms. Students everywhere demanded expulsion. Until they found out who the students were. They were well-liked. And suddenly people saw things with less conviction. We all need to learn patience. In the recent sexual assault conversations, many called for action having never read our policy. We teach information literacy. As educated citizens we need to be swift, but thoughtful.

6. Perspective and context matter.
This gross, rich, white man of privilege said something really wrong and dumb. It is all we have heard about for days. And yet... Leonore Draper was shot and killed. Donald Sterling is easy pickings. And Adam Silver is the new Rudy Giuliani - courage and leadership in a crisis. Worse is happening, and so is better, but it isn't as neat and sexy. So we spend time on the sensational and ignore the meaningful.

We need to be committed to teaching our students to understand the difference.

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