The conversation begins with an apology, innocent but obviously insincere. You know it’s insincere because when the apology is spoken, there are almost nine and a half minutes remaining on the tape acquired by TMZ.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” says a woman.
“I’m sorry, too,” says a man purported to be Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
This should have been my cue to hit the escape key on my laptop. A man I don’t know was talking to a woman I’ve never met. The thoughts he would share with her were none of my business, and to eavesdrop on him was as wrong as sifting through a stranger’s mailbox and opening any envelope addressed by hand.
Still, I kept listening, because the conversation, full of disturbing remarks spoken by a misanthropic creep, had become a national story.
“I’m just doing my job,” I told myself. “I need to know what this is about.”
But there was another allure: I had been given access to the private musings of a public figure, and even though the public figure had not given his consent for my access, I could listen without guilt or fear.
Well, without fear, anyway.
If it turns out the man talking on the tape really is Donald Sterling and not an impersonator involved in an elaborate hoax, we have further evidence the worst owner in pro sports is also among the most contemptible human beings in pro sports: a petty, cruel, racist bully whose ideas about how the world works are frightening.
It’s difficult to fathom how
the Clippers, serious contenders for an NBA championship after decades of futility spent in subservience to the Lakers, won’t be distracted by the realization most of them work for an owner embarrassed to associate with black people.
For that matter, it’s difficult to fathom ticket-buying Clippers fans supporting a product that enables Sterling to collect a profit. Magic Johnson has already announced he won’t attend another Clippers’ game as long as Sterling is the owner, so that’s one empty seat guaranteed at the Staples Center.
There will be more, hundreds more, perhaps thousands more.
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver, facing an early challenge that sacked him from the blind side, went into crisis-prevention mode Saturday, noting that members of the league’s family “should be afforded due process and a fair opportunity to present their side of any controversy, which is why I’m not yet prepared to discuss any potential sanctions against Donald Sterling.”
If Silver orders sanctions, he’ll be on some delicate legal ground. As repulsive as Sterling’s words were, it is not against the law to harbor mean-spirited thoughts, and it is not against the law to convey those thoughts while speaking to somebody else on the telephone.
What is against the law in most states, including California, is for a participant in a phone conversation to record it without seeking the permission of the other participant in the phone conversation.
Had Sterling knocked down a few cocktails and spilled his sorry guts during, say, a meet-and-greet function with team sponsors, the case to suspend him would be strong. Had he delivered his rant within 500 feet of a TV camera or a radio microphone, it would be even stronger.
I hate what he said, but what Sterling said should have remained between him and the “friend” who recorded his words and made them available, presumably for a healthy financial compensation, to TMZ.
When a billionaire buffoon as out of touch as Donald Sterling sounds like a 2014 version of Archie Bunker — only worse: Archie’s bigotry was steeped in the frustration of a life inhibited by walls he didn’t build, and had no inspiration to climb — calling for Sterling’s suspension is as easy as Sunday morning.
Ah, but there are those darn nuances that get in the way. Like, for instance, basic civility, and honoring the right for somebody to hold a private conversation.
“Honey, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
And I kept listening.
Shame on him. Shame on her. Shame on me.