Power Move

The NBA’s War With Donald Sterling Is Just Getting Started

The bigoted owner of the L.A. Clippers was banned for life from basketball. Will the league be able to force him to sell the team?

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has banned for life the problematic racist slumlord in their midst, embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, but the war to force him to sell has only just begun.

In addition to being exiled, Sterling was also slapped with a $2.5 million fine, the largest in league history. Of course, said bill still represents just 0.26% of Sterling’s reported $1.9 billion dollar fortune, or the equivalent $51 parking ticket to an American making the median in yearly earnings ($38,786).

Silver made it clear that “these funds will be donated to organizations dedicated to anti-discrimination and tolerance efforts that will be jointly selected by the NBA and its Players Association.” The ban, Silver added, ensures that “Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team… He will also be barred from attending NBA Board of Governors meetings or participating in any other league activity.”

Silver also explained that a league investigation had concluded that Sterling was, in fact, the guy caught on tape making racist remarks with former mistress V. Stiviano.

The biggest blow, however was saved for the end of his prepared remarks:

“As for Mr. Sterling’s ownership interest in the Clippers, I will urge the Board of Governors to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team and will do everything in my power to ensure that that happens.”

That was shocking. In the days prior to today’s announcement, the general assumption was that Silver and the other owners would suspend Sterling and then quietly work behind the scenes to facilitate a sale.

But by invoking the terms of paragraph 13 of the league’s constitution, they’re setting themselves up for a serious, prolonged court battle with the famously litigious Sterling. It’s a fight Sterling is looking for and may even relish, even if he has little chance of winning, telling Fox News’ Jim Gray, “The Clippers are not for sale.”

The Clippers themselves are in no way protesting Silver’s decision and will not be issuing a statement from Donald Sterling. “He’s not a part of the team anymore.”

ESPN’s legal analyst Lester Munson broke down Sterling’s potential chances in court:

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.

Sterling’s past misdeeds are legion. He’s been sued twice by the Justice Department for discriminatory housing practices; he’s been hit with sexual harassment lawsuits; and he’s been repeatedly accused of basically treating every business he’s run like a modern-day plantation. But until now, the league hasn’t acted upon these transgressions.

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Silver said that’s because nothing was ever proved in court. “While there have been well-documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit,” he said. “That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention. When those two litigations were brought, they were followed closely by the league office.”

But now, all of those past misdeeds are fair game as the NBA’s Board of Governors mulls whether to force Sterling out of the league. “In meting out this punishment we did not take into account his past behavior,” Silver said. “When the board ultimately considers his overall fitness to be an owner in the NBA, they will take into account a lifetime of behavior.”

Before today’s conference, there was a serious question about how hard Silver would bring down the hammer. It was assumed that he’d do everything in his power to avoid a situation in which the notoriously litigious Sterling could drag out matters with a lengthy court battle.

But that is not what occurred. This was a different Adam Silver than we’ve ever seen before.

A former litigator, he has been known to choose his words carefully and with great regard for any potential legal implications. This was not that guy. He was mad as hell, not going to take it any more, and when he said, “The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful; that they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage.” The quote doesn’t begin to convey the genuine rage in his tone of voice.

And if by acting in the strongest manner possible, and levying the harshest punishment available, he may have gone a great length toward beginning to repair the NBA’s reputation and, more importantly, garner the support and respect of the players and fans.

So now as the battle lines are drawn, the big question is, does Silver have the votes of three-quarters of the NBA owners that he needs to force a sale?

The vast majority of owners have publicly voiced their support for the commissioner and condemned Sterling in the strongest language possible. But if the comments made last night by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban are any indication, behind closed doors, Silver may have to twist arms in order to force Sterling out.

While making it entirely clear that he found Sterling’s comments deplorable, he also fretted about this being “a very slippery slope. What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s a decision I make… I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”

He’s not wrong, per se. There are serious questions about privacy in this country, but when Cuban imagines the horrors that wait at the bottom of his rhetorical water slide, the Bill of Rights is not what he’s really worried about.

Regardless of how vile the owners found the language that Sterling uttered, none of these men of privilege wants to establish the precedent that an angry public can rise up and create a national furor over their private lives and forcibly separate them from their teams.

As Dave D’Alessandro wrote in the Newark Star-Ledger over the weekend, if you start examining the political beliefs and the business practices of the men who own the teams you love, you might find any number of issues with that could keep you from spending your time and hard-earned dollars on what are essentially frivolous competitions.

Imagine a world where public opinion takes a sharp turn against say, fracking. The last thing Aubrey McClendon wants is a throng of pitchfork-wielding environmentalist protesters camping out in front of Chesapeake Arena, home to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Or if an objection to gay marriage is suddenly viewed by the vast majority of individuals as solely an expression of homophobic bigotry. Do you think the Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos wants fans of the team having to decide whether buying tickets is a form of validating his statements that gays “keep asking for favors,” and that marriage is “not vital to them, in my opinion?”

This is why Silver’s actions today were surprising. He has established as precedent the idea that words and actions that have nothing to do with what occurs on the court could result in the loss of a billion-dollar asset.

That’s the side that Silver has chosen. More importantly, he’s going to war against the long-standing assumption that the owners and the owners alone get decide who stays and who goes in their exclusive club; not their basketball-playing stars, and certainly not the people who pay to watch the games.