Donald Sterling, Part ?

Published: June 2, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs an individual of their personality one piece at a time. Particularly insidious is the fact that some of the personality traits that once appeared as petty irritations of life, can grow to become acts of shocking intolerance.

This brings me to the recent news about Donald Sterling. The L.A. Clippers owner went on a racist rant that was captured on audio, released to the public and resulted in a lifetime ban from attending any NBA events, a $2.5 million fine and the forced sale of his team.

In addition to all the back and forth that’s been taking place between Sterling, his wife Shelly and the NBA, another twist to the scandal has recently gained traction. USA Today writes (May 30), that “…Sterling was diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease… after he voluntarily underwent an extensive neurological exam earlier this month.

“Under terms of the Sterling Family Trust, which owns the team, Shelly Sterling became the trust’s sole trustee because Donald Sterling was deemed mentally unfit to make decisions for the trust, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.”

Shelly Sterling has since announced the sale of the Clippers to billionaire Steve Ballmer for a reported $2 billion, pending approval by the league.

” ‘You can be in the early stages of dementia and still be competent under a trust agreement, so it’s a question of degree as well,” Linda Wasserman, an adjunct law professor at the University of Michigan said. ‘He could have his own separate physicians examine him and determine that he is not incompetent and then it would end up in court.’

“Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease, so mental capacity would depend if the person was in the early stages or middle stages, said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association. It is incurable, worsens as it progresses over a period of years, and leads to death.”

Adding another layer to all of this is the fact that Sterling, through his attorney Max Blecher has filed a federal lawsuit last Friday (May 29) “…against the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver, alleging breach of contract and a violation of his constitutional rights after the league banned him last month for making racially charged comments in a privately recorded conversation with his female companion.

“The suit seeks more than $1 billion in damages, the elimination of his ban and $2.5 million fine, and the termination of the NBA’s plan to terminate his family’s ownership of the team.”

Asked to comment on Sterling’s diagnosis, Blecher replied, “No court has made an adjudication of (Donald Sterling’s) mental capacity.”

Unless those at the center of this issue concede – namely Sterling and his attorney, Blecher which doesn’t look likely any time soon – the circus that has become Donald Sterling’s life will likely continue for week or months.

But here’s my question: Can an individual diagnosed with early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s be held responsible for their actions?

The following story from the Alzheimer’s Association web site might shed some light on the issue.

” ‘Jane’ and ‘John’ were shopping at a local department store one afternoon when, unbeknownst to Jane, John took a candy bar from the display. As they exited the store, they were stopped by a security team, which had observed John taking the candy bar on security cameras.

“Jane has always made it a priority to always keep a close eye on John to prevent something similar from occurring. On the day they were shopping in the department store, Jane looked away for just a moment, but it was enough time for John to pocket the candy bar.

“Jane tried to explain to the security team that her husband has Alzheimer’s, but they insisted on separating the two of them. They interrogated John alone for an hour before allowing him to reunite with Jane. They were told they were banned from the store and that they would need to pay a fine of $450 if they did not want the matter pursued with authorities.

“Jane called her Alzheimer’s Association volunteer support group facilitator for help and guidance. The facilitator then contacted Alzheimer’s Association staff and explained the situation. Staff leadership worked directly with Jane to learn more about the situation, then wrote a letter to the Vice President of the store explaining John’s condition. Upon receipt of the letter, the store immediately dropped the fine and ban.”

Having shared that story, it’s clear that the Donald Sterling incident is decidedly different. His racist comments were aired publicly, and in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Sterling began with an apology that eventually led to disparaging comments about Magic Johnson and blacks, in general.

After the tape began to circulate in the media, Commissioner Silver and the NBA immediately launched an investigation. Once Sterling acknowledged that it was, indeed, his voice on the recording Silver wasted no time in penalizing the Clippersowner with a lifetime ban, fine and, after a vote by the other 29 league owners, the forfeiture of his team.

Circling back to my question: if Donald Sterling has indeed been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, should he be held accountable for his statements or given a pass?

“If someone is loaded or drunk are they still responsible?” Dr. Gary Lange, a psychotherapist asks. “If they are mentally deficit, under anesthesia, are they responsible for their behavior? Yes, however, in our society we are more likely to give latitude for mental deficiency or anesthesia but not so for being loaded.”

From an ethical standpoint, while great care should be exercised in dealing with anyone suffering from any cognitive disorder, if Sterling was diagnosed with early stage of the Alzheimer’s, as two neurologists indicate, as law professor Linda Wasserman points out, Sterling could still challenge the diagnosis in court. Therefore, if he is capable of testifying for himself in open court, he should be capable of taking full responsibility for his words and actions.

Before any hearing, however, it would be essential for the court to have Sterling undergo a thorough mental evaluation by a court-appointed neurologist to weigh-in on the original diagnosis.

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