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COMMENTARY: Racist Comments Can’t Be Forgiven, But Donald Sterling’s Mental Health Can’t Be Ignored

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Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, looks on as his team plays. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, looks on as his team plays. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dennis-O'Donnell_BIO-HEAD Dennis O'Donnell
Dennis O’Donnell is the Sports Director at KPIX 5. He has receiv...
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Leave Donald Sterling alone.

After reading numerous reports of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and listening to his interviews, what we’re doing is making a punching bag out of a mentally incompetent human being.

This is my opinion, based on what I’ve read, seen, and dealt with in my experience with Alzheimer’s. We live in a news cycle of instant information and immediate reaction. The obvious and rational reaction to Sterling’s racist remarks was to condemn the man and demand his immediate removal as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. We praised the swift reaction of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver who banned Sterling from the NBA just days after we learned of the audio recording.

In the past few days, it has been reported that Sterling has not only been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but he may have had it for five years. While I can’t verify the accuracy of the report, his rambling interviews, his search for the proper words, his inconsistent logic suggests to me that the report isn’t far off.

Alzheimer’s patients don’t have filters. They don’t think logically. They don’t pause to think what they say might be wrong, racist, sexist, or homophobic. Sometimes, they react to a question using a time frame from decades long ago. An Alzheimer’s patient might see his daughter walk into the room and believe he’s looking at his wife and the year is 1940.

Did Adam Silver and the NBA consider Sterling’s current mental state? Perhaps they noticed nothing unusual, which is possible. The lucidity of a person with Alzheimer’s can fluctuate greatly. One minute he’s fine, the next he’s not. My guess is the NBA walked away from that meeting with some degree of uncertainty as to Sterling’s mental state. But given the pressure of the moment, there was no time to determine the severity of his mental state.

Sterling’s racist remarks are unacceptable coming from anyone in any context. I just wish there had been a proper evaluation of his mental condition before there was a rush to judgment. Then again, would anyone have accepted Alzheimer’s as an explanation?

I doubt it.

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