What I think will happen to Donald Sterling

Over the weekend I wrote about the Clippers’ horrible owner, Donald Sterling, and how he needs to be gone. While I still strongly feel that way, it’s not likely to happen. At least not right away.

There’s a lot of complications in removing Sterling’s ownership of the team. Firstly, despite the ridiculous comments he made on the recording, it was a private conversation. We all think things we shouldn’t from time to time, so imagine our employers got a hold of our thoughts, should we be fired? Sterling didn’t break any laws, so this isn’t a typical scenario. The closest precedent in sports is Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who made statements in defense of Hitler, (this after a history of racial accusations, like Sterling) and she was suspended from baseball from 1996-1998. What will likely happen when the Commissioner addresses the media today is Sterling will receive what appears to be the maximum penalty allowable at this time (many governing documents of the NBA are private), a year suspension and a 1 million dollar fine. Although Sterling is a billionaire, he is notoriously cheap, so that punishment will hurt him more than most think. The other issue with removing Sterling from power is described in the link posted below, in a terrific interview by Dan Patrick of Bomani Jones of ESPN. Jones mentions that owners fear a “brave new world” in which a private conversation can cost you ownership of your team. It’s a a great point. Why would owners establish a precedent that could cost them their teams down the road in the even they get in trouble? It is possible however, according to ESPN’s Lester Munson in an online Q&A (link below):

Q: Is it possible for Silver and the NBA to terminate Sterling’s franchise ownership?
A: Yes. Under the terms of Paragraph 13 of the constitution, the owners can terminate another owner’s franchise with a vote of three-fourths of the NBA Board of Governors, which is composed of all 30 owners. The power to terminate is limited to things like gambling and fraud in the application for ownership, but it also includes a provision for termination when an owner “fails to fulfill” a “contractual obligation” in “such a way as to affect the [NBA] or its members adversely.” Silver and the owners could assert that Sterling’s statements violated the constitution’s requirements to conduct business on a “reasonable” and “ethical” level.
Any owner or Silver can initiate the termination procedure with a written charge describing the violation. Sterling would have five days to respond to the charge with a written answer. The commissioner would then schedule a special meeting of the NBA Board of Governors within 10 days. Both sides would have a chance to present their evidence, and then the board would vote. If three-fourths of the board members vote to terminate, then Sterling would face termination of his ownership. It would require a vote of two-thirds of the board to reduce the termination to a fine. Terminating a franchise would obviously be a drastic remedy, but the potential of the termination procedure gives Silver and the other owners vast leverage in any discussion with Sterling about an involuntary sale of his team.

If such a vote is initiated by one of the owners, it will really put them to the test, and we will see how real the “outrage” we’ve heard from them the last few days really is. That is why I believe for now Sterling will only face a suspension and a fine, but it won’t end there. Commissioner Silver will make the only move he can make at the moment, but as pressure builds from the likes of President Obama down to Magic, MJ, and LeBron, something will have to give. I think behind closed doors the owners will turn up the heat on Sterling, as he’s bad for business right now, and when Doc Rivers resigns this summer and players demand trades, the Clippers will risk falling back to irrelevance. It is likely in Sterling’s nature to fight tooth and nail to keep his franchise, but Munson goes on to explain his lack of legal recourse:

When Silver issues his punishment to Sterling, the decision is final. The constitution provides in Paragraph 24(m) that a commissioner’s decision shall be “final, binding, and conclusive” and shall be as final as an award of arbitration. It is almost impossible to find a judge in the United States judicial system who would set aside an award of arbitration. Sterling can file a lawsuit, but he would face a humiliating defeat early in the process. There is no antitrust theory or principle that would help him against Silver and the NBA. He could claim an antitrust violation, for example, if he were trying to move his team to a different market. But under the terms of the NBA constitution, he has no chance to succeed in litigation over punishment.”

I don’t believe the owners will immediately kick him out, but as sponsors, coaches, and players drop like flies, eventually we will see the last of Donald Sterling.


Dan Patrick interview with Bomani Jones 4/28


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