Commentary: LeBron James, Dan Gilbert and Free Speech for NBA Team Owners

These billionaires will say what they want and their pockets won't get any lighter.

Posted: 07/11/2014 12:40 PM EDT
Keith Boykin

Until LeBron James announced his decision to return to Cleveland this afternoon, it had not been a great week to be an NBA team owner.

First, Donald Sterling stepped into more controversy — if that's even possible for him — when he yelled at his wife in a court proceeding to try to block the sale of his Los Angeles Clippers. "Get away from me, you pig!" he screamed at her.

Then, news surfaced Friday morning that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was the major stumbling block to LeBron James's return to his hometown team.

Gilbert famously posted a scathing letter guaranteeing Cleveland fans that LeBron would be cursed not to win an NBA championship when the basketball star announced he was going to Miami in 2010. That letter remained on the Cavs website for four years, long after LeBron had won two NBA titles, until it was finally taken down last week when LeBron became a free agent reportedly considering a return to Ohio. "If it wasn't for that letter, this [deal to bring LeBron to Cleveland] would've been done awhile ago," one source told ESPN's Chris Broussard.

So by that standard, yes, it was not a great week for NBA owners. But who are we kidding? These guys are super rich sports team owners. These pesky little controversies might damage their egos or reputations for a few weeks, but they won't lighten their wallets.

Sterling stands to win big even if he loses. He bought the Clippers for $12 million in 1981 and now could gain as much as a billion dollars from the NBA's forced sale of the team. The 80-year-old former lawyer, best known for his racist rants against Magic Johnson and black players, will ultimately reap a healthy financial reward for his public expression of bigotry.

Neither should we cry for Dan Gilbert, who was forced to eat crow to win back his star player. The 52-year-old Quicken Loans founder and generous contributor to Republican candidates is reportedly worth $3.9 billion, according to Forbes. And he's not alone.

The average NBA team last year was worth $634 million, Forbes reports. And 14 of the NBA owners are billionaires, with a combined net wealth of $76 billion.

Of course, only one NBA owner is Black. That would be Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who stands out in the crowd, especially since 76 percent of NBA players were African-American last year.

Jordan's fellow owners read like a "who's who" of American business. Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, 65, served as CEO of Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise operator. New York Knicks owner James Dolan, 59, serves as president and CEO of Cablevision. Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, 61, was a co-founder, with Bill Gates, of Microsoft.

Some, like 55-year-old Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, are well known. He's an author, television personality and "shark" investor on the ABC TV series Shark Tank. Others, like 88-year-old Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos, are less well known but incredibly influential. DeVos was a co-founder of Amway, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a supporter of the business group ALEC that pushed Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law.

As a longtime sports fan, I think it's important for other fans to know where their hard-earned money is going when they buy an expensive ticket to a game, a high-priced team jersey or a league-authorized cap. If fans are going to hold the moderately wealthy athletes accountable for their behavior on and off the field, then we ought to hold the super wealthy owners at least as accountable for theirs.

Billionaires have the right to spend their money wherever they want. But professional sports team owners are more than just independent businessmen (and yes they're almost always men). They're often held up as pillars of the community, bolstering civic pride as cheerleaders for the home team and examples of self-made success, even when they're begging for public financing for private stadiums and arenas.

All that notoriety comes with a certain amount of accountability for their words and their actions. This is a free country, and Donald Sterling and Dan Gilbert can say whatever they want. But freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences, and in America, the 316 million people who are not billionaires have the right to say what they think as well.

In the end, LeBron was the bigger man. "I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man," he wrote in Sports Illustrated. "We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?" But now that LeBron is returning to Cleveland on his own terms, maybe Gilbert and other team owners will think twice before they go off on a rant the next time.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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