3 Workplace Lessons from the Disgrace of LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling

Cliff Wildes NBA sponsor with Donald Sterling owner of LA Clippers (circa 1989)

Earlier today, the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, will be banned for life from the game.  He must also pay a $2.5 million fine for allegedly making racist remarks in a conversation with his girlfriend, Vivian Stiviano.

Issues like this get people talking about race and power and money and sex and basketball.

No one should be surprised that this story is dominating nearly every news channel, news feed, and social stream. But you might be surprised that a faith and work site like The High Calling has anything to say about it.

The easy response would be to simply judge Sterling. Brand him a racist, and celebrate his departure from the game. He becomes a kind of scapegoat when we adopt this position, albeit a thoroughly guilty scapegoat if the allegations are true. The things Sterling is accused of saying would expose him as a deep and disturbed racist. If we reduce him to a scapegoat, his actions and his public punishment allow us feel good about ourselves in contrast. We can all pat ourselves on the back that we are not as racist as Donald Sterling.

This would be right and true for most of us. But the story alleges Sterling to be more than just a racist. He is a racist boss. He is a racist owner—a word that feels especially wrong given his racist comments about providing for his players. He is a husband and a father.

So what does the story look like through the lens of faith and work? What workplace lessons can we learn from Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers?

1. Work With Character

The culture of a workplace reflects the character of its workers and vice versa. This means individuals become ambassadors between the culture of their work and the culture of their home. To put it another way, our problems follow us around wherever we go. If I am having problems at work, I will likely take those problems home. If I am having problems at home, I will likely bring those problems to work. Thankfully, the reverse of this is also true. If my work is uplifting and energizing, I will take that positive energy home. If my home life is stable and supportive, I will bring that stability and confidence to my work.

Dr. Denise Daniels of Seattle Pacific University has explained something like this at Laity Lodge. She said, “Messed up people mess up their organizations; messed up organizations mess up their people. And healthy people contribute to positive organizational cultures; healthy organizations contribute to healthy individuals.” If the allegations are true, Sterling is a messed up person potentially messing up an entire organization.

Kevin Johnson, chairman of the National Basketball Players Association, said recently about the incident, “When a hint of cancer is shown, you have to cut it out immediately.” Based on Johnson’s analogy, Sterling’s alleged bigotry would have a ripple effect on the entire NBA. As a person gains influence in the workplace or an organization like the NBA, that person’s character has an even stronger potential impact on the culture. One bigoted leader may not create a legion of copycat bigots, but a hateful and arrogant leader may foster a culture that makes excuses for hateful and arrogant behavior.

2. Live With Integrity

Whether you value privacy or not, technology is slowing chipping away at it. We don’t have to worry about the rise of George Orwell’s Big Brother because little brother is happily sharing pictures and quotes and videos with the latest social sharing tools. In a sense, we all carry the coolest spy gadgets in our shirt pockets—a smart phone with audio and video recording features, sharing features, and research tools.

How does this relate? Sterling allegedly made his racist remarks in a private conversation that was recorded and shared with a wider audience than he intended. This does not let him off the hook, but it is a reminder to all of us that we cannot live fragmented lives. We all live and work in glass houses. Anything we say or do is easily captured by our neighbor’s smartphone.

So let us live and work with the utmost integrity.

3. Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

In fact, we can push further than integrity. Yes, be who you say you are. Yes, let your belief system dictate your actions. But Christians should do more than that. Because we believe God loves the world, we should love the world, starting with our neighbors.

When we are angry, we must be careful not to say ugly things. When we look at other people, we must be careful to view them as children of God. Hateful words flow out of a hateful heart. If we hope to use words to encourage others and lift them up, we can only do so through the grace of God in us.

The allegations against Sterling prove one thing without doubt: people care what other people believe. No matter how wonderful our performance or productivity, the world cares if our belief system is hateful.

Thank God, he doesn’t call us to be people of hate, but people of love! In our work, in our homes, in our communities, in our private conversations and our Instagram photos, let us be people of character, integrity, and love.

God cares about our work as much as he cares about how we accomplish that work. And guess what, so does the world.

By Cliffwildes (NBA event) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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