Donald Sterling banned from NBA for life.

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Somehow it doesn’t seem to be enough. He is going to continue to make millions of dollars off the backs of people who he would rather not have at his games were they not filling his pockets with money.

    Grantland has a great back-and-forth piece with Rembert and Wesley: http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-owner-and-the-owned-a-discussion-about-donald-sterling/

    I think it covers some of the ground that Chris discussed in terms of hearing from black folk about how the comments landed with them as well as showing how pernicious some things are in sports vis-a-vis race relations in general and with Sterling in particular. Their point about the ubiquitous use of the word “owner” — something we never really do elsewhere in business or entertainment — really stood out. I can’t necessarily say that they are right — that the word is insidiously used to call back to slavery — though I’m not really sure they were arguing that point as much as they were pointing out issues with power and relationships in sports. A long read but well worth it.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      Well, bear in mind that assholes get to own property too; if he has to sell the team he deserves to be compensated for it. If he wants to sue (and our Tod is certainly correct that this will happen) for inadequate compensation in that sale or the right to attend a game if he buys a ticket or something, then yes, the courthouse doors should be open to him.

      Now, if that were to happen, and I were the NBA’s attorney, I’d have a four-word response to any sort of lawsuit from Sterling:

      “We want a jury.”Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      I thought that Grantland dialogue was pretty well done myself.

      But I’m not sure how Silver’s response here is insufficient – there’s literally nothing more he can do so quickly, and even the lifetime ban may well be beyond his authority, though that may just be a matter of semantics since he seems to clearly have authority for an “indefinite” ban.

      The only other thing that the NBA can do is to force him to sell, but that’s not something that’s within the commish’s personal power; regardless, a sale of that magnitude would take months to complete, and the process needs to be done carefully and by the book lest they leave the door open for Sterling to obtain a court injunction blocking the sale. Nonetheless, Silver made clear that he will in fact be setting the wheels for a forced sale into motion, which is as much as he can do on an immediate basis.

      One other thing – because imposition of the suspension and fines are clearly within Silver’s powers as commissioner and because – according to Lester Munson (who is not the world’s greatest legal analyst, so take this with a grain of salt), the NBA Constitution places the commissioner in the position of an arbitrator, it’s highly unlikely that Sterling would be able to obtain an injunction against the suspension regardless of whether Sterling’s actions are technically a breach of the NBA Constitution. From the courts’ perspective, all that’s necessary is that the Commish has the authority to issue that type of punishment; whether he has a valid basis for his decision to exercise that authority is close to irrelevant.

      But since Silver doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally force a sale under the NBA Constitution, any attempt to do so would be outside of the scope of his authority and would thus be something that the courts could enjoin.

      Instead, it’s the owners who have the ability to force a sale; but a vote of the owners doesn’t have the protection of being treated as the decision of an arbitrator. What that means is that if the owners vote to force a sale by stripping the Clippers of their franchise status until a sale was complete, Sterling will be able to get an injunction requiring the Clippers retain their franchise status unless the basis for stripping that franchise status is wholly compliant with the NBA Constitution and with basic principles of contract law. That’s going to be really tricky to do – under the existing Constitution, they can only strip him of the franchise for gambling, fraud, or “failure to fulfill a contractual obligation in such a way as to affect the NBA adversely.”

      http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/10852199/challenge-donald-sterling

      Sterling isn’t being accused of gambling or fraud, and it’s a real stretch to say that his actions here legally constitute a “failure to fulfill a contractual obligation,” even if they quite obviously “affect the NBA adversely.” I could see a judge buying the theory, but it’s far more likely that a judge would say that private statements (which, by the way, the NBA quite likely would be unable to get admitted into evidence anyhow in California due to CA’s wiretapping laws) like this can’t be a “failure to fulfill a contractual obligation.”

      To actually strip him of the franchise, the owners may need to first very carefully amend the NBA Constitution to allow termination for violation of civil rights laws, then investigate to find concrete evidence of other wrongdoing by Sterling that is both admissible and shows behavior meeting the new criteria for termination of a franchise, and then vote to terminate. That’s something that will take some time. That said, if Sterling refuses to pay the $2.5 million fine, he’d pretty clearly be in violation of a contractual obligation, which would give the other owners a pretty clear basis to rescind his franchise.

      One thing that sucks about all this is that, even with a forced sale, Sterling’s going to come out of this just fine – he bought the team for a whopping $12.5 million and even in a forced sale scenario is going to wind up getting hundreds of millions as his return on investment. But there’s not really anything that can or should be done about that.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        Given how well the team is playing, the kind of talent they have under contract, and the current state of the Lakers, this is probably the top of the market for a sale.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        Most likely. However, if it’s a forced sale where the team needs to be sold quickly, prospective buyers will presumably be able to lowball their bids a fair amount.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised if his presumptive heirs make a bid for the team; during the presser today, it came up that Sterling family members that work for the team in executive positions could still do so, and that Silver’s ruling singularly applied to Donald Sterling.

        (That would also possibly be tax-advantageous over waiting for an actual inheritance)Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        There have been rumors for years that Larry Ellison has been shopping for an NBA franchise that he can move to San Jose. Larry can afford it all by himself, but make part of the deal that he let Magic Johnson be a minority partner to run the basketball end of things. Magic can cover the difference in price of the Clippers versus, say, the teams in Memphis or Milwaukee.

        While Silver may have three-quarters of the owners in line, I anticipate that we won’t hear about it until they’ve lined up an impeccable buyer.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        There isn’t going to be a fire sale. At the very least, Paul Allen is going to offer a Godfather deal and take them to Seattle. Which would probably be best for everyone.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Kolohe That’s true, but I highly doubt the league will let such a thing happen.

        As hard as it is to force a single owner to sell, the NBA Constitution has broad authority over who it can allow to purchase a team. A team cannot be sold to a new owner without the League’s authorization. The League is not required to allow a sale to the highest bidder, nor is it required to justify to a potential buyer why they are not accepting that person’s offer.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @kolohe True enough, though keep in mind that any sale needs to get approved by the rest of the owners. I’d imagine that the other owners would be very reluctant to approve a sale to his heirs and immediate family if there’s a competitive bid from an unrelated third party, which there most certainly will be. It was, after all, just a year ago that the league blocked a sale of the Kings to Steve Ballmer, who was going to move the team to Seattle (which really needs a team again) in favor of a lower bid from a group that would keep the team in Sacramento.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        At this time, I don’t see the franchise moving.

        The Clippers currently have the hottest selling team in the League’s highest revenue market. No one’s going to spend the money to buy it and then move it to a small market like Seattle or San Jose.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        The Warriors would have something to say about moving a team within 50 miles of them. They might well be able to persuade enough owners that that’s a bad precedent to kill or at least delay a sale, and the NBA wants this to happen quickly.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @tod-kelly According to Forbes*, the Clippers are middle of the pack value-wise. Their home attendance was only 400 per game higher than the Lakers despite the latter being 2nd worst in the West. They don’t have a loyal fan base. Moving to Seattle would make them kings and the city owns the rights to the Supersonics name. They would inherit a rabid fan base immediately.

        All this ignores the fact that sports teams are a vanity project. Do you think Ellison cares if his America’s Cup team makes him money or that they win? Paul Allen has money to burn and wouldn’t care one whit that it didn’t make sound financial sense. There are 400 billionaires in the US and only 30 NBA teams.

        * The valuations are a bit wonky, but give you a good idea directionallyReport

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      @kazzy I had no doubt from watching both Silver’s prepared comments and his Q&A at the press conference that he already knows he has the 3/4 majority from the other owners he needs to force the sale of the team in the summer.Report

  2. Avatar Jim Heffman
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    says:

    Sterling is like a caricature of an awful rich person. Like someone who, if he were in a movie, people would say “that’s ridiculously overblown, nobody would actually be like that in real life”.Report

  3. Avatar j r
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    says:

    A couple of random thoughts:

    I wonder if we will start to hear rumors that someone paid Sterling’s mistress to leak this kind of conversation to get Sterling out and a new ownership team in now that the Clippers have become legitimate contenders and not one of the league’s jokes.

    And judging by some of the Tweets I’ve seen today, lots of people really don’t understand what the First Amendment is and what sort of organization the NBA and other professional sports leagues are. Players and coaches regularly get censured and fined for what they say.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to j r
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      says:

      Yeah, Twitter is reminding me why I don’t ever go on Twitter.

      Even beyond the basic misunderstandings of the First Amendment, it’s really worth emphasizing that Sterling isn’t merely being censured because he said some offensive things. This wasn’t something where he “merely” let loose some racial epithets, much less someone who simply expressed an offensive, unpopular, and morally abhorrent political viewpoint. This was action that a lot of people would say is tantamount to abuse of his mistress. He was explicitly seeking to compel her to restrict her relationships with other people, and specifically black people. He was seeking to do this because he believed he possessed the power to coerce her to do so.

      He expressed a similar belief as to his authority over his employees, and specifically his black employees. In so doing, he confirmed something that many employees seemingly had long suspected – that his treatment of those employees was not accidental.

      At root, he’s not merely expressing offensive racial views, he’s indicating that he acts on those views in his relations with other people, including his players, and indeed is happy to attempt to coerce others (in this case, his mistress) into acting in accordance with those views.

      He’s not being censured for private opinions. He’s being censured for his treatment of others.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        I’ve been surprised listing to sports talk radio just how many people calling in stuck up for Sterling.

        It probably says a lot about the kind of people who call into sports talk radio.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        I’m going to stick up for my man Jim Rome again. Underneath the frat-boy schtick, he’s an old-fashioned moralist. His take is

        The best opening playoff round in league history was completely overshadowed by an angry, old billionaire bigot, Donald Sterling. And if the league can authenticate the audio which has Sterling spitting all types of ignorance and hate, then new commissioner Adam Silver needs to swing his hammer hard and fast, something his predecessor David Stern never did.

        And he had Harry Edwards on to drive the point home.Report

    • Avatar Mo in reply to j r
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      says:

      Sailer is starting the rumor that this was a setup by Magic Johnson, Michael Milkin and the Illuminati* to buy the team. I wish I was making this up (OK, I made up the part about the Illuminati).Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Mo
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        says:

        Ha. Elias Isquith has a story on Salon featuring Limbaugh. (Is this our Elias? Are there two?) but no mention of Sailer.

        So this is a conspiracy now. The and Magic heads the Black Illuminati. Sweet. Where’s my popcorn?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mo
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        says:

        Limbaugh blames the blacks; Sailer blames the blacks and the Jews. Shocking.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Mo
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        says:

        @mike-schilling was it you that fixed my mucked tag? If so, thank you, if not, thanks to whomever. (At least it wasn’t closed with an /i this time.)

        And should I have recommended Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati Chronicles to Truman? Ped Xing is one of my favorite character names ever. I don’t remember anything else about the books at all.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mo
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        says:

        You’re welcome.

        I read the Illuminati when I was a teenager, and all I remember is that there were some really dirty parts.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Mo
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        says:

        I’m glad to see I’m not the only one around here who reads Sailer. 😉Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    @mark-thompson and @burt-likko

    Far be it from me to argue with either of your legal acumen. I consider the punishment insufficient insofar as Sterling is insulated from the full consequences of his actions because of the unique structure of American sports leagues. A subset of his employees can’t quit and seek equivalent work with a competitor. And even if they did, Sterling would still profit off their labor because of revenue sharing. That feels inherently wrong — even if any avenues to correct that do not exist or are wronger still. I gather Silver did all he could. And maybe all that can be done by anyone. That the extent of his punishment is a timeout and a fine that amounts to a rounding error — while he’ll continue to collect checks well in excess of that — just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      I don’t think it’s quite right to say that a lifetime suspension is a simple “time out.” If he has any involvement with the team whatsoever, the other owners won’t even have to wait to amend the constitution to force the sale. The lifetime suspension means that he has no authority over his coach, his players, or the Clippers’ administrative and managerial employees. It means the Clippers cease to be his team for all intents and purposes other than his ability to collect the proceeds of any eventual sale and – only to the extent the Clippers’ CFO, over whom he presumably now lacks control – permits, a cut of the team’s profits.

      Under those circumstances, it may even be in his best interests to simply agree to put the team up for sale immediately – what’s the point of owning a professional sports team if you can’t control it?

      I’m also not seeing how the unique structure of American sports leagues insulates him from the full consequences of his actions here. In the average business, the main thing that could happen to Sterling would be the loss of customers, which can and has happened here already (the Clippers have lost every single one of their sponsors). To the extent that his players can’t just up and quit and seek employment with a competitor, that’s primarily a function of their individual contracts, which is a luxury most employees don’t have since most employees are at-will; what’s more, because of basketball’s global nature, even to the extent that a Clippers player who quit could be barred from playing for another NBA team, there are no shortage of foreign teams happy to pay a nice chunk of change in the short term. And last but not least, keep in mind that NBA players in particular, with their guaranteed contracts, have an awful lot of leverage – as I recall, they can pretty much just refuse to play unless they get released, and most certainly can just tank if they do take the court. It’s not as if anyone looking to sign them would hold that against them at this point.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @mark-thompson

        The CFO can really refuse to cut him a check? That’s interesting.

        Even if the sponsors pull out and the fans refuse to attend and no one watches his games on TV — any of which would force a regular business into the toilet — the Clippers would not go under. So, to an extent, he is sheltered.

        Maybe I’m being a bit irrational. You are certainly being far more rational than I. The fact that many have gone on record saying that Sterling operated the team with a plantation mindset and this penalty — in a weird way — potentially* only furthers that parallel (in that Sterling sits back, does nothing, and continues to collect money made off the backs of black people) just doesn’t sit right with me.

        * Though this all changes if you are indeed right about whether profit/earnings can be withheld.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        I don’t know that for a fact, but it seems likely to me – he’s banned from participating in “any business or player personnel decisions involving the team” according to ESPN. I would think that profit distribution would constitute a “business decision involving the team.” At minimum, it seems clear that he loses control over spending and revenue decisions more generally, which means even if he’s allowed to take distributions, it can only be from what’s left after the decisions made by others have been paid for.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        So, theoretically, the CFO could donate all profits to the Donald Sterling is an Ass Foundation? Could the sale of the team be made without Sterling’s consent given the language of the ban?

        Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Sterling is absurdly rich whether or not he makes another dime off the Clippers. It’s symbolic as much as anything… which is why it totally makes sense that someone with a legal background would see it very differently.

        (To be clear, I don’t think you — or @burt-likko — are wrong… factually or otherwise. I’m just angry, is all.)Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @kazzy “Could the sale of the team be made without Sterling’s consent given the language of the ban?”

        The ban and the sale are two legally separate items, even as connected as they obviously are.

        Under the NBA constitution, the most action a commissioner can levy against an owner is a ban for a set period of time and fines of up to $2.5 million. Silver did both with Sterling, making the period of time “lifetime.”

        However, the NBA commissioner cannot force any owner to sell his franchise against his or her wishes. The NBA constitution does allow for the other owners to force the sale to an owner of the League’s choosing, provided that 3/4s of the other owners vote to do so.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @tod-kelly

        “…or participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”

        Theoretically, selling the team is a “business decision involving the team.” Couldn’t whomever is charged with making those decisions in Sterling’s absence up and sell the team?

        This question may not be answerable without knowing the specific language of the ban.

        That said, it would probably behoove them to take the path you describe.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        “Theoretically, selling the team is a “business decision involving the team.” Couldn’t whomever is charged with making those decisions in Sterling’s absence up and sell the team?”

        Yeah, but since the people in charge will be Sterling’s wife and his son, you have to assume they are going to want to sell it to a he highest bidder that the League will allow, and that’s going to be a non-Sterling that keeps the team in the greater Los Angeles area.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        If he has any involvement with the team whatsoever, the other owners won’t even have to wait to amend the constitution to force the sale.

        As Tod says, the constitution doesn’t have to be amended for that. And from the press conference, it sounds to me like there already are going to be no unnecessary delays with the forced sale process. So I don’t think there’s any additional enforcement connectedd to the threat of the forced sale. It’s already happeneing as fast as Silver can possibly get it to.

        So the ban comes down to things like who controlls security at the facilities, whom the Clippers staff would obey if Sterling tried to give them orders, and so forth. From what I understand, Sterling doesn’t employ security directly, so it’s pretty likely they’d obey the NBA, and I’m guessing everyone in the organization would follow Silver’s command over Sterlings right now. So as far as it goes, it’ll be pretty effective.

        I think it’s enough, but I also think it’s an attenuated kind of ban from the NBA that leaves someone with ownership of an NBA franchise, even if that ownership now means zero control over the management of the organization. BUt soon enough he won’t have that, either (and the timing of that has nothing to do with what he does in the interim).

        It’s clearly enough; it’s all Sliver had in his toolbox. Ultimately, though sports leagues are consortia of team owners; there’s a limit of what can be done to team owners except by the other owners, and even then there are limits.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        Good point, @tod-kelly . I didn’t realize they were assuming control.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    most certainly can just tank if they do take the court

    After all, they’re the Clippers.Report

  6. Avatar Saul DeGraw
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    says:

    So basically he is going to be forced to sell his team for somewhere north of 500 million dollars?

    This seems like a pyrrhic victory in many ways.Report

  7. Avatar ScarletNumbers
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    says:

    I find this to be an interesting coincidence…

    The most successful season in Clippers franchise history was in 1975, when they were still the Buffalo Braves. They took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets to 7 games in the conference semifinals. They also had their only MVP in their history: Bob McAdoo.

    The Braves’ coach that year? None other than Dr Jack Ramsay, who died yesterday.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    I’m going to walk back my criticism that the punishment seemed insufficient. It still bothers me that Sterling will ultimately profit off a group of people the majority of which he seemed as inherently inferior to himself. But there is really no practical way to address that. Silver has done all he can and it looks like the owners will do all they can. The players are happy with the response — including a number of things Silver did to address their concerns beyond just punishing Sterling (e.g., sharing the previously secret bylaws with them). Hopefully, should an owner like Sterling join their ranks again, the league will not wait until there is a public outcry about someone who has been a known racist, bigot, and (most importantly) discriminator and will include whatever language in whatever places to make taking such action possible.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      The most drastic punishment would be to withdraw the Clippers’ franchise and award it to an expansion team. I don’t know whether that’s possible under the NBA’s bylaws, or if it were whether the other owners would have the stomach for it.Report

  9. Avatar ScarletNumbers
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    says:

    When this story first came out, I said to myself: Wow, I didn’t think John Sterling was capable of saying such things.

    For those who don’t know, John Sterling is the 75-year-old radio voice of the New York Yankees.

    Even though both Sterlings look alike, they are not related. In fact neither was born with the last name “Sterling” and both are members of the tribe. (No, not the Cleveland Indians)Report

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