Sterling, Silver, and Statutory Interpretation: On the NBA's Punishment of Donald Sterling

For those who like using sports rules to illustrate statutory interpretation, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lowering of the hammer on Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a gold mine (forgive the precious metal puns). And it may be that, while Silver is being lauded everywhere for his moral and ethical stand, his legal footing is a bit shakier.

Silver on Tuesday imposed three punishments: 1) A lifetime ban from all involvement with the Clippers or the league; 2) a $ 2.5 million fine; and 3) a call for the owners to vote to terminate Sterling’s ownership. The NBA had previously kept its governing documents secret; at the time of Silver’s press conference, no one outside the league knew the precise bases for these punishments (when asked, Silver said he would “leave that to the lawyers”). The league finally released its Constitution and By-Laws (H/T: Deadspin), although they still have not announced the precise bases for these decisions, so we are guessing as to exactly what Silver relied on and why. We may only know if Sterling challenges his punishments (presumably through a breach of contract action). Either way, you probably could get a nice legal analysis exam out of this.

The lifetime ban is most likely pursuant to Article 35A(d), which empowers the commissioner to “suspend for a definite or indefinite period . . . any person who, in his opinion, shall have been guilty of conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the Association.” The fine seems to be pursuant to Article 24(l), which gives the commissioner catch-all authority to make decisions “as in his judgment shall be in the best interests of the Association” when a situation is not otherwise covered; the maximum fine under that provision is $ 2.5 million. Finally, the call for termination of Sterling’s membership triggers Articles 13, 14, and 14A. Article 13 enumerates ten bases for termination; the only one that might fit is (a), where an owner “Willfully violate[s] any of the provisions of the Constitution and By-Laws, resolutions, or agreements of the Association,” which brings us back to Article 35A(d)’s conduct prejudicial or detrimental or Article 24(l)’s “best interests.” The power to terminate rests with the NBA’s Board of Governors, comprised of the other 29 owners, and requires a 3/4 supermajority.

First, it is interesting that Silver apparently split the source for the first two punishments. The suspension seems to have been under Article 35A(d) for conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA. But 35A(d) also allows for a maximum $1m fine in addition to the suspension. Clearly Silver did not rely on that for the fine, however, since he imposed a fine 1 1/2 times larger than 35A(d)’s limit. Instead, the fine must have been under the Article 24(l) catch-all, given the amount. Why did he do it this way? Presumably to impose the larger fine under 24(l).

But there is a good argument that resort to the catch-all is inappropriate here. Article 24(l) expressly applies only “[w]here a situation arises which is not covered in the Constitution and By-Laws.” This situation is covered by another part of the Constitution–Article 35A(d), already used for the suspension. In other words, since Silver found that Sterling violated Article 35A(d) (in suspending him), that also should have been the basis for the fine. Silver thus was wrong to resort to the catch-all.  Further complicating matters is Article 35A(c), providing for fines (again, maximum $ 1 m) specifically for statements prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of the team, league, or basketball. That also seems to cover this situation–Sterling obviously said things contrary to the best interests of the NBA–again making resort to Article 24(l) inappropriate.

Second, and related: Why did Silver rely on Article 35A(d) for conduct prejudicial or detrimental rather than Article 35A(c) for a statement prejudicial or detrimental? Presumably because (c) does not allow for suspension, while (d) does. But Sterling is unquestionably being punished for statements, not conduct (whatever his racist views, he was not punished for acting on his views or operating his team in a way that implemented those views). While a provision prohibiting conduct could, standing alone, also reach statements, that argument does not work when there are distinct provisions, one regulating conduct and one regulating speech. Did the NBA Constitution intentionally set-up a situation in which conduct could be the basis for a suspension but statements only for a fine? If so, perhaps this means the suspension is improper.

Note that my analysis presumes a certain exclusivity–Article 24(l) by its terms cannot be in play if a different provision is; Article 35A(d) cannot be used to regulate statements because 35A(c) already does, so 35A(d) must only reach non-statement conduct. Perhaps Silver would argue–and an arbiter would accept–that all of the provisions together allow for this range of punishments, just as prosecutors often pursue overlapping charges. But that would involve an odd form of statutory interpretation in this case and would render many provisions of the NBA’s Constitution & By-Laws superfluous.

Third, expect some controversy when the owners attempt to terminate Sterling’s ownership. The league would be basing termination on a willful violation of either of three broad, non-specific provisions (either “conduct prejudicial or detrimental,” statements prejudicial or detrimental, or conduct judged not in the “best interests’); either seems a very generic basis for this ultimate sanction. (For a legal comparison, think of SCOTUS’ efforts to make 18 U.S.C. § 241 work for catch-all Due Process violations in the face of vagueness concerns). The other nine bases for termination are fairly specific, going to gambling and fixing games (forever the cardinal sin) and extreme mismanagement of the franchise, although none is in play here. Perhaps Sterling could argue that either 35A(d) or 24(l) is not a specific enough rule in the Constitution & By-Laws as to be willfully violated as to form a basis for termination under 13(a). Failing that, termination of ownership, if the owners must the necessary supermajority (and I imagine they will,  both to show support for Silver’s leadership and to keep the players happy), appears proper and within league rules. Of course, under Article 14(j), owners waive any review of this decision, so it may not matter (unless, as Professor David Hoffman argues, the enforceability of this waiver-of-recourse clause is dubious).

In addition, one might read “willfully” in Article 13(a) to require specific intent (again, what the Court has done with § 241). That is, requiring a finding that Sterling not only specifically intended to make those statements (he did), but specifically intended to make them so as to be prejudicial or detrimental to the league. If that is what willfully does, termination of ownership may become tougher. Otherwise, any little violation of any rule could become a basis for termination.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how the owners approach termination of ownership. Typically, terminating a franchise transfers control to the league, under Article 14A(c). But the media seems to be talking in terms of the owners giving Sterling an opportunity to sell the team outright to some outside owner. While not specifically provided for, that might be a potential negotiated resolution.

More by | Howard M. Wasserman Howard M. Wasserman , Contributor