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Do Fans Have Any Responsibility After Sterling's Comments?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are continuing our conversation about the comments connected to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Basketball fans, the public, even the president are speaking out about allegations of racism because Mr. Sterling is reportedly on tape demanding that a female friend stop bringing African-Americans to Clippers games, including basketball star - former basketball star and business mogul Magic Johnson, and posting pictures online with black people.

Now Mr. Sterling has been widely condemned and denounced by people connected to the game. But we wondered about the ethical responsibility of league officials, players and even fans in an issue like this. So joining us now to talk about that is Jack Marshall. He is the president and founder of the ethics consulting and training firm ProEthics. Jack Marshall, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JACK MARSHALL: Thanks, Michel. Always great to be here.

MARTIN: So what are some of your initial thoughts about this?

MARSHALL: Well, I describe this as an ethics train wreck because what's happening is - and an ethics train wreck - my definition of that is that almost everyone who touches it ends up breaching some degree of ethical fairness or ethical thought. And I'm already seeing it.


MARSHALL: Because it's more complicated than it looks. You heard some of this, I think, from Bill Rhoden's comment about how, you know, if you say something privately, you might as well say it publicly, and this is who you are. We have, throughout our history, had people that undoubtedly harbored racist thoughts or deep bigotry, but managed through their actions to do great good. In fact, as you know, Mr. Sterling is scheduled to be honored by the NAACP in Los Angeles in May.

MARTIN: I think they've rescinded that honor.

MARSHALL: Well - but...

MARTIN: But you wrote about a personal acquaintance of yours, whom you knew harbored profoundly racist and anti-Semitic sentiments.

MARSHALL: That's right.

MARTIN: And yet when he died an untimely death, he had a large number of people from diverse backgrounds attending his funeral, with whom they had very warm and cordial relations. And you found it kind of puzzling. But you also said that it's - you know, there are personal sentiments, but there are public actions.

MARSHALL: He treated everybody fairly and with respect. And in fact, despite the fact that he was a bigot - we argued about this all the time - and he was not rich, he gave money to the United Negro College fund every year.

MARTIN: So what do you learn from this? So what standard do you think should be used to evaluate Mr. Sterling's comments, if they are found to be truthful? If these comments are, in fact, found to have been made by him?

MARSHALL: The way I described it is it's like in law when you keep a vicious animal or a dangerous animal on the property. As long as you keep it safe and keep it from hurting people, you're fine. But if it hurts anybody, there's strict liability. And I think racist thoughts and bigoted thoughts are like that.

Once they get out - however get they get out - you're completely liable for the damage they cause. There's no question that what he said causes damage to his team, to the league, to the business, to the culture. And therefore, he is strictly accountable for that, even though I have a lot of problems with the manner in which it was revealed. I mean, it's illegal, among other things...


MARSHALL: ...In California to do this kind of thing.

MARTIN: I understand. That issue, I think, will be addressed...

MARSHALL: Separately.

MARTIN: ...Separately.

MARSHALL: It's a separate issue.

MARTIN: But - so let's talk about the other issue. Who here, now, is accountable for doing what, in your view?

MARSHALL: I mean, I think he is a hundred percent accountable for making statements - however they come out - that express his beliefs, that undermine the trust of his employees, that undermine the image of the league and that can undermine and cause serious cognitive dissonance with fans. So there's economic and cultural damage done as a result of this. And the league has to move, in any way it can, to solve that.

And he can claim - one of his funniest statements was that he apologized for the statements attributed him - to him, which is an odd thing to say. But, you know, once this happens, once those thoughts are out, once you've expressed them, then you are accountable for them. And it's one reason why it's incumbent upon all of us to try to become as, you know, unbiased and unbigoted as possible. But it's also - we must admit, everybody has their biases. So in ethics, we try to urge people to acknowledge them and get by them to, through their actions, get - like my friend, who I talked about.

MARTIN: Do your - do the fans have any responsibility here? People have been talking a lot about the players, saying the players need to make a stand here. That's a very small group of people with specific kind of legal relationships with the team and with the league and Mr. Sterling. I'm just interested in - what about the rest of us?

MARSHALL: I think we all have a duty to build a more ethical culture. And that means sending the right messages. It also means, however - because - and this is why I think we can easily step on ethical lines while talking about it - we have a right - we have freedom of thought in the United States. We allow people to have diversity of thought and we judge people on their actions, not what's in their head.

We don't want - I don't want to get into being a culture where there's thought control, where we punish people for thinking things. But once we're talking about actual words that become conduct, because they've been publicized, then I think every fan has an obligation to be part of the effort to build a more ethical culture and to say, we don't want this kind of attitude in our society.

MARTIN: It's interesting, 'cause Bill Rhoden pointed out that back in 2009, Mr. Sterling paid more than $2 million to settle a housing discrimination suit by African-American and Latino tenants in buildings that he owned, saying that he took active steps to discourage these tenants of those ethnic backgrounds from inhabiting his buildings. And he and his - and so there was a legal proceeding. It was concluded. Should that be the end of it, as far as our understanding of this incident?

MARSHALL: No. I think it's part of the record. I think what's interesting about it is - I very much doubt that his players were unaware that this man was a racist. I think it probably - because of the Elgin Baylor situation, I think it was generally known. But there's a big difference from knowing that you're playing for a man who may harbor racist beliefs and it being exposed to everyone that you, as African American, are now working for someone who has contempt for you. Then, you have to do something about it.

MARTIN: You do? Do you have to?

MARSHALL: I think you do for a matter of dignity and also to demonstrate that you do not want to actively perpetrate the situation that you want - that you object to. Now, in fact, they may have been doing that in their own way and paid well to do it. But now it's out in the open. And now they are hypocrites. And now I think they have to take action.

MARTIN: As you said, it's complex. Jack Marshall is an ethics consultant. He advises businesses and individuals on ethics matters. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Jack Marshall, thanks so much for talking with us.

MARSHALL: Thank you, Michel. Always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.