When Punishment is a Reward – What We Learned from Donald Sterling

Punishment is a funny thing, as anyone who has ever punished someone else, or even themselves, can tell you. The punishment often looks fitting and feels right in that instance, but may take you in some odd or even undesirable places as it gets put into effect. It’s not that I am opposed to punishment per se, but the ongoing story of Donald Sterling and the future of the LA Clippers reminds me of just how weird the consequences of punishment can be. In this case, they may include the larger, and presumably undesirable, lesson that it pays to be a bigot.

With former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer offering $2 billion for the team, it’s not hard to imagine Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling laughing all the way to the bank! How Sterling got to this point is very much tied up with the buying frenzy that has ensued since “all decent people” jumped to the conclusion that he must be stripped of the team as quickly as possible. In other words, in the rush to punish the offender, the punishers may actually be rewarding him!

The impulse to punish and penalize, often expressed in a knee-jerk moment of righteous indignation – be it toward Sterling, one of our kids, or ourselves – may be legitimate, but as with this case, also unwise. If it is about anything more than blowing off emotional steam, it pays to slow down and resist that initial temptation, for a more considered response. Certainly that would have helped in the case of Donald Sterling, and I think in most other situations as well, if we are honest with ourselves.

By rushing to strip Sterling of his ownership, and making it a badge of honor to be the next, and more racially sensitive, owner of the team, the price was driven up and Donald makes out like a bandit. Instead, the public, not to mention the potential purchasers, could have simply allowed the advertisers and fans to walk away, have nobody make an offer, and watch the team’s value evaporate.

True, broadcast rights and other issues would still be in play and support the team as having significant value, but nothing like it had when moral outrage against Sterling combined with the idea that taking over the team would be a sign, not only of good business, but a badge of great citizenship and moral decency. Once that happened, Sterling was looking at the payday of his lifetime.

People are funny, and the punishment reflex is often even funnier. Frankly, how much Steve Ballmer pays Donald Sterling for the Clippers will not make much difference in any of our lives, but managing that punishment reflex – and we all have it – really can.

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