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That's the way it's supposed to work

By Bryan Monroe, CNN Washington Editor
updated 8:20 AM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bryan Monroe compares outcome of Sterling saga with the firing of shock-jock Don Imus
  • In both cases, he says, the system of outcry, pressure and advertiser action worked
  • Sterling has been banned for life by the NBA, fined $2.5 million
  • NBA owners may force the sale of his team, the LA Clippers

Editor's note: Bryan Monroe is the Washington Editor/Opinion for CNN. He was also the president of the National Association of Black Journalists from 2005-2007. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanMonroeCNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Nearly a decade ago, radio shock-jock Don Imus uttered these words about the women's basketball team at Rutgers University: "Those are some nappy-headed hos."

Within one week of saying that, he was out of a job.

That's the way it's supposed to work.

Last week, it was revealed that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling said even more heinous words about blacks and Latinos. The NBA said it has confirmed that it was Sterling's voice talking to his girlfriend: "Yeah, it bothers me a lot...that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?"

Bryan Monroe
Bryan Monroe

And now we see, within days of that revelation, he has been banned from basketball. For life.

That's the way it's supposed to work.

In both cases, it was industry and public outrage, coupled with significant pressure from sponsors and advertisers, that led to the swift action, ripping from both of these men their public platforms and access to continued revenue.

In the case of Don Imus, it was the outrage of many Americans, along with the intense feelings of journalists -- black and white -- within NBC, CBS and the profession at large. TV personalities like Al Roker, CBS board member Bruce S. Gordon and others both publicly and privately called upon the leadership at NBC (who carried his morning talk show on MSNBC) and CBS, (who carried his radio show) to remove him from the air.

At the time, I was the president of the National Association of Black Journalists and was among the first to call for Imus to be fired.

But it was also pressure from the public and activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who worked behind the scenes to encourage advertisers such a Snapple, Sarah Lee, Proctor & Gamble and American Express to pull their advertising from the shows.

And it worked.

Isiah Thomas on forcing Sterling out
What will racist rant cost Sterling?
Toobin: Clippers' sale is a done deal

This week, we saw nearly the same thing happen in the Sterling case.

It was the unified outrage of current and former professional basketball players in the NBA, the outcry from fans and the public, the relentless coverage from the media, and then the swift action by more than a dozen advertisers -- Adidas, Sprint, State Farm, Amtrak, CarMax, Kia Motors, Virgin America, to name a few -- that led to the announcement Tuesday by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that Sterling had to go.

As a journalist, I am the fiercest champion of the First Amendment and our right to free speech. In fact, one would hope that Sterling would continue to exercise his right to free speech and speak out directly and publicly about his comments. We'd offer him this space or an opportunity on CNN to do just that.

But we learned from Imus, and again with Sterling, that just because you have the right to free speech doesn't mean you have the right to access a commercial platform or to earn millions of dollars airing that speech.

Those are both privileges that must be earned, respected and, if abused, that can be taken away. By the customer: the American people.

We live in a free society, one where the ultimate arbiters of decency and honor are the marketplace and the public.

When you cross that line, the marketplace will speak.

That's the way it's supposed to work.

In the noise of reality TV, 24-hour news, partisan talk radio and dancing cats on the Internet, there are plenty of examples where the popular overwhelms the good. But occasionally, the system governed by the customer actually delivers the right outcome.

Now, in both cases, these men will be just fine.

After a few months of soul-searching and apologies, Don Imus went on to land another TV and radio show, this time on FOX Business Network. At 73, he is still worth millions of dollars, and has led a post-Rutgers life largely free of drama.

And Donald Sterling, 80, will be just fine, too.

The team he bought in 1981 for $12.5 million is now worth well over $575 million, according to Forbes. And his net worth has been reported at more than $1.9 billion.

So, even after being slapped with a $2.5 million fine -- the maximum Silver could hit him with under NBA ownership rules -- Sterling's net worth will still be about $1.8975 billion. He's going to be alright.

Nevertheless, the real winners here are the players, the fans, the owners (when they vote Sterling out), and the process.

In a free, fair and capitalistic democracy, where the decency of the American voice still has some power, this is exactly how it is supposed to work.

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