Sterling and privacy

CBS Sports’ Jon Solomon aptly summed up the general feeling about Donald Sterling’s train wreck interview with Anderson Cooper: “Donald Sterling knew he was being taped this time, right?”

I don’t think there’s much else worth saying about Sterling himself. I thought he was likely suffering from some form of Dementia when the first recordings were released. That seems more obvious by the day. That, combined with his general wretchedness, is just going to keep producing these train wrecks as long as he keeps trying to explain himself.

Concerned about how Sterling became the subject of public scorn in the first place, Bill Maher raised concerns on his show Friday about the violation of Sterling’s privacy rights. Maher said: “Last week when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, ‘When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.’ But Sterling didn’t advertise…He was bugged. And while he may not be worth defending, the 4th Amendment is.”

Yesterday, Colin Cowherd endorsed Maher’s view, adding the “even-the-liberal” qualifier for good measure.

I am not especially enthusiastic about public figures – sports or otherwise – being run out of town because of one errant remark. In this case, and despite Commissioner Silver’s initial protestations to the contrary, it is clear that the NBA moved swiftly to ban Sterling because he was a long-loathed figure whom the league now saw an opportunity to dispatch. Furthermore, the NBA was facing a perhaps unprecedented action by the players, causing the disruption of the most important part of its season. In other words, this was a business decision.

It is not, though, a fourth amendment issue. Ms. Stiviano may well have violated California law by recording that original conversation, though it seems unlikely that any legal action will be taken against her for having done so. I have some sympathy for laws like the California statute. But the 4th amendment turns on the government’s intrusion into the private lives of individuals. There are very good grounds to be deeply alarmed by the steady erosion of our privacy rights and the government’s attack on those. We are indeed, witnessing a metastasizing national security state.  That is not, however, why Sterling is the subject of public scorn now. Technology has made all of us more vulnerable to exposure. There’s a serious discussion to be had about how to navigate the new looking-glass world in which we live. The question, then, is what sorts of laws should be put in place to protect private individuals from the iphones of other private individuals.

However his conversation leaked out, once it was in the public domain, the league came to view Donald Sterling as bad for business. Private concerns and associations have a lot of latitude to deal with these sorts of matters. That reality should not be confused with government over-reach. In some ways, it’s the opposite. I am not trying to nitpick here. However, if we are to going to worry over our ever-shrinking zones of personal autonomy, perhaps we should be more concerned about the power of private enterprise to exercise dominion in ways it sees fit, which have included increasingly invasive monitoring and control of workers on the job; or an evermore pervasive surveillance state that has insidious consequences for society at large. Or the complicity of the former with the latterMaher has not distinguished himself as a fourth amendment stalwart on these much larger questions. Neither, as far as I am aware, has Cowherd. It doesn’t mean the problems they’ve raised with the circumstances of Sterling’s “outing” lack merit.

I just think there are bigger fish to fry here.


One comment

  1. I don’t think we’ll really know how big or small of an issue this is until another situation comes up similar to this one. Then we’ll see if this decision set a precedent that reaches beyond the NBA or not. If it does, then, yes, this is huge. If it does not, then I guess we can move on.

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