Sterling vs. Eich

Donald Sterling at a Clippers game, April 21, 2014.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Is Brendan Eich as bad as Donald Sterling? If Sterling deserves to lose his team for being a racist—as the NBA has just affirmed—did Eich deserve to lose his job for opposing gay marriage?

Lots of bloggers think so. They say Eich’s defenders are hypocrites to denounce Sterling. Here’s the argument from David Badash:

Brendan Eich made a very public gesture to be anti-gay. Conservatives insist money is speech. Eich spoke $1000 worth of anti-gay words that are part of the public record, and directly supported ugly efforts to marginalize and disparage gay people. … If you think Brendan Eich should still be the CEO of Mozilla, or should not have been the subject of scorn and upset, then you have to support Donald Sterling.


And from Tim Peacock:

Why does Eich get a free pass on his anti-minority statements while Sterling receives the third degree for equally repulsive behavior? Both men lead companies where no clear evidence of employee harm exists despite the potential for that harm to occur based on the leader’s stated animus toward a specific minority group.

Wow. You’re kidding, right?

Eich’s behavior and Sterling’s are equally repulsive? Eich had a stated animus comparable to Sterling’s? There’s no evidence that Sterling caused harm?

Let’s get reacquainted with the facts. Here’s the evidence against Sterling. First, his recorded rant:

Don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come. … It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. … In your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.


And here’s his trail of discrimination. From Peter Keating’s article in ESPN the Magazine:*

According to the Justice Department, Sterling, his wife and three of his companies have engaged in discrimination, principally by refusing to rent to African-Americans. …

according to testimony [property supervisor Sumner] Davenport gave in a discrimination lawsuit brought against Sterling in 2003 by 19 tenants and the nonprofit Housing Rights Center. (That case ended in a confidential settlement in 2005) … When Sterling first bought the Ardmore, he remarked on its odor to Davenport. “That’s because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean,” he said, according to Davenport’s testimony. “And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.” He added: “So we have to get them out of here.” … Two years later, Sterling resolved the Housing Rights Center case with a payout. …


[A]ccording to sworn testimony given in 2004 by building manager Dixie Martin, [Sterling] said, “I like Korean tenants.” Raymond Henson, head of security at the building, who was standing outside the room, heard what happened next. Sterling, according to Henson’s 2004 sworn statement, once again expressed his distaste for Mexicans as tenants, saying, “I don’t like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house.” Later, Sterling told Martin that he knew he shouldn’t discriminate. But he had the right to do so, she recalled him saying, because he owned the place.

Later, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Sterling has agreed to pay a record $2.725 million to settle allegations that he discriminated against African Americans, Hispanics and families with children at scores of apartment buildings he owns in and around Los Angeles. … In court filings, Justice Department lawyers presented evidence that the Sterlings made statements “indicating that African Americans and Hispanics were not desirable tenants and that they preferred Korean tenants” …


From a court declaration by former Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor:

Players Sam Cassell, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette complained to me that Donald Sterling would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”


Former Clippers GM Paul Phipps adds this quote from then-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino:

Don looks at me and he says, “I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers.”

That’s Sterling’s record: a long trail of repeatedly alleged, well-substantiated animus and discrimination.

What about Eich? Here’s what Mozilla’s executive chairwoman, Mitchell Baker, said about him on March 26:

My experience is that Brendan is as committed to opportunity and diversity inside Mozilla as anyone, and more so than many. This commitment to opportunity for all within Mozilla has been a key foundation of our work for many years. I see it in action regularly. … I was surprised in 2012, when his donation in support of Proposition 8 came to light, to learn that Brendan and I aren’t in close alignment here, since I’ve never seen any indication of anything other than inclusiveness in our work together …


And again in early April:

I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla’s values of inclusiveness.

Christie Koehler, Mozilla’s head of education and a self-described “queer woman,” added:

Certainly it would be problematic if Brendan’s behavior within Mozilla was explicitly discriminatory, or implicitly so in the form of repeated microagressions. I haven’t personally seen this (although to be clear, I was not part of Brendan’s reporting structure until today). To the contrary, over the years I have watched Brendan be an ally in many areas and bring clarity and leadership when needed.


Eric Shepherd, Mozilla’s developer documentation lead, wrote:

in the more than eight years I’ve worked at Mozilla, I’ve never known Brendan to treat anyone differently based on their gender, sexual orientation, color, religion, eye color, height, weight, or anything else …


Matthew MacPherson, a Mozilla software developer and self-described “bisexual guy,” noted:

We added trans benefits and a Code of Conduct with Brendan in a leadership position. I have spoken to no queer Mozilla people who feel Eich has ever made them uncomfortable.

The New York Times concluded that “there is no indication that Mr. Eich behaved in a biased manner at work.”

In short, there’s no comparison between Sterling’s behavior and Eich’s. The only evidence of anti-gay bias on Eich’s part is the money he gave six years ago to a ballot measure to preserve the definition of marriage as heterosexual. Eich has never explained his reasoning, but it’s entirely plausible that when he gave that money (at a time when Barack Obama and thousands of other Democratic officials didn’t support same-sex marriage), he agreed with another Mozilla employee that gay couples should have “exactly the same legal rights” as straight couples, but under a different name. That position, grounded in a traditional understanding of marriage as an essentially procreative institution, is different from broad anti-gay bias and from opposition to interracial marriage.


If you believe that a person who withholds the term “marriage” from same-sex relationships is bigoted, prove it. Surely such a bigot will have said or done something, beyond that position, to show anti-gay bias. Some supervisor, colleague, subordinate, or associate will step forward with an allegation. That’s what has happened, again and again, with Sterling. Yet after 16 years at Mozilla, nobody has come forward with such a story about Eich. At some point, you have to ask yourself why. Is it possible that a person can oppose same-sex marriage without treating gay and straight people differently in any other context? Is it possible that the assumption of bigotry was misconceived?

No, Sterling is nothing like Eich. And in our rush to vilify our adversaries, that should give us pause.

Read more about Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

*Correction, May 5, 2014: This post originally misstated that an excerpt from ESPN the Magazine was from Sports Illustrated.