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updated: 5/1/2014 12:49 PM

Dealing with scandalous behavior before it becomes a scandal

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Donald Sterling's apparent racism isn't exactly a purely suburban story, but with the Bulls in the playoffs -- temporarily, sadly -- and his story reverberating constantly through every news venue for days, the furor over the L.A. Clippers owner's remarks certainly raged through suburban coffee shops, water coolers and sports bars. Interest was so intense that the story twice made the Daily Herald's front page, first as outrage mounted at the height of the first round of the NBA playoffs, then as the league announced his punishment.

Suburban or not, stories like this are hard to keep in perspective -- both for us in the media and for readers reacting to them. But you'll not soon find a more insightful response to the whole mess than that of former NBA All Star and one-time Sterling employee Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Writing for Time magazine online, Abdul-Jabbar notes that there's plenty of criticism to go around, including for the news media, and perhaps especially for the news media, whose excitement seems imprudent, at least.

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"They caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping," Abdul-Jabbar wrote.

Before I read Abdul-Jabbar's piece, I was considering a theme for this column acknowledging our interests as people in the triumph of right. Much of the appeal of the Sterling story, I believe, comes from a natural human desire to see wrongs righted. This story came practically ready-made for that plotline -- an unsympathetic basketball mogul, caught in the act of grand hypocrisy on one of the most sensitive issues of our time, swiftly getting his just desserts.

And the Sterling story is all that. But Abdul-Jabbar points out that there's also something more, and something more important for newspaper readers and all followers of the news to keep in mind. It begins, as he points out, with a litany of legal and labor problems that demonstrate the practical, public effects of Sterling's racism much more obviously than his ugly sentiments expressed in a conversation he thought was private.

"if we're all going to be outraged, let's be outraged that we weren't more outraged when (Sterling's) racism was first evident," Abdul-Jabbar writes. "Let's be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played."

Then, he asks the key question that applies not just to this controversy but to similar sensations in, to borrow from Winston Churchill, a long and lamentable catalog of sensitivity scandals: "What should be done next?"

For the Sterling case, Abdul-Jabbar provides a list of responses, but he also points to a larger responsibility for all of us as we both spread and react to these public outrages. That is, to see them in their larger context and, especially, to react to the problems they represent with something more than averted eyes or hands over gaping mouths -- something more than "being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep,"

If stories like this are to have any value -- whether on the national scale or in the suburbs alone -- it must surely include the reminder of the need for constant awareness of scandalous behavior even before it becomes a scandal.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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