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How to Handle Scandal: Donald Sterling

See other How to Handle Scandal features.

clippers donald sterling racist scandalWhat we know: 

Donald Sterling, the 80-year-old owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, allegedly made racist statements that were secretly recorded by a much-younger woman (V. Stiviano), who was believed to be his girlfriend.

"It bothers me a lot that you want to...broadcast that you're associating with black people," he reportedly told the woman in the recording.

The NY Daily News reported that "Sterling is not highly regarded in many circles and has had prior issues regarding the way he or his organizations have treated minorities."

Sometimes events in the news – even dicey ones – find their way into the classroom. This may happen due to student curiosity or lack of understanding, or because a scandalous event has far-reaching impact. When this happens, it's important to decide what you can and cannot say as an educator.

Individual schools and districts may have policies guiding teacher responses to sensitive issues, and we urge you to consult with an administrator before addressing these topics. At the very least, however, we'd like to help you fully understand the story. How to Handle Scandal features will appear when the news dictates and will be updated as details change.

The fallout: 

The alleged comments drew strong criticism--everyone from players and civil rights activists to public officials, including President Obama, weighed in. Other NBA team owners worried about losing fans and money because of the situation. Companies such as Red Bull, Kia and Sprint withdrew their Clippers sponsorship.

On April 29, 2014, after concluding that the voice on tape was Sterling's (Sterling admitted the recording was authentic), the NBA banned him from the league for life and fined him $2.5 million. Sterling will be forced to sell the Clippers. The NBA in a statement called Sterling's comments "deeply disturbing and alarming."

Although the recording was made in California, a “two-party” state where it is illegal to record someone without his/her permission, Stiviano's lawyer has said she had Sterling's knowledge and permission to record him.

Potential issues to discuss in class:

  1. What have you been hearing about this case in the news? What thoughts have you had about the situation?
  2. What is your reaction to the NBA's decision?
  3. Sterling's comments were made privately rather than publicly. Should this have been a factor in the NBA's decision? How was the NBA decision-making process different from the process that would occur in a court of law (if Sterling had been accused of a crime, which has not happened in this case)?
  4. Discuss how the issue of free speech is related to this case. Does freedom of speech mean "freedom from consequences"? Does the First Amendment protect hateful speech?
  5. Prior to the NBA decision, some suggested that players should have gone on strike in an attempt to force Sterling out. What do you think would have happened if the players had gone on strike? Would this have been the right strategy?
  6. The NY Daily News has noted that since a team is a private business, a commissioner technically doesn’t have the power to take it away from its owner. Do you think Sterling will respond to his penalties with legal action against the NBA? Would he have a case if he did? (The NBA constitution does allow indefinite suspension of individuals exhibiting conduct that is "prejudicial or detrimental to the league.")
  7. If you were the NBA Commissioner, what would you have done? What steps would you have taken to resolve the situation?
  8. Sterling has not directly expressed remorse for his remarks, saying only that he apologized "to anyone who may have been hurt by the tirade 'being attributed to him'." Would it be possible for Sterling to make amends for his alleged behavior? If so, how could/should he do this?
  9. In general, how should verified incidents of racist statements/language be handled when the perpetrator is a public figure?
  10. What do you think L.A. Clippers players are thinking and feeling? What about L.A. Clippers fans?

Related resources

Combating Racism in a Multicultural World: Classroom Resources

Lesson Plan Booster: Student Clothing and the First Amendment


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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Updated 05/02/2014