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The media storm surrounding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s alleged racist comments has been swift and strong, but the legal fallout is just taking shape.
Celebrity gossip website TMZ posted audio online late Friday night purportedly capturing Sterling telling a girlfriend that he didn’t want her posting pictures of herself with African-Americans on social media or bringing black people to Clippers games.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a press conference Saturday that the league was moving quickly with an investigation to determine the authenticity of the recording, which should conclude in a matter of days. “There are broad powers in place under the NBA’s constitution and bylaws that include a range of sanctions, and all of those will be considered depending on the findings of our investigation,” Silver said Saturday. The league has set a press conference for Tuesday to discuss the investigation’s findings.
Silver practiced as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore before joining the NBA in the early 1990s. He took over this year from longtime commissioner David Stern, who himself practiced early in his career at Proskauer Rose, the league’s regular outside counsel. We reached out to a Proskauer spokesman, but did not hear back by the time of this post.
As we’ve previously pointed out, Sterling also began his professional career as a lawyer, practicing divorce and personal injury law before investing in real estate and making a fortune that landed him on Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires. Rich as he may be, Sterling has been no stranger to racially charged controversy.
In 2009, Sterling agreed to pay a record $2.725 million to settle charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice that he discriminated against African-Americans, Hispanics and families with children at apartment buildings he controls in Los Angeles. Sterling was represented in the matter by counsel at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, including partner Robert Platt, the Clippers’ outside general counsel. Sterling did not admit any wrongdoing as part of that settlement with the DOJ.
Platt and Manatt also represented Sterling in a wrongful termination suit brought by NBA Hall of Famer and former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor in 2009. In the lawsuit, Baylor accused Sterling of decades of racist behavior and running his franchise with a “vision of a Southern plantation–type structure.” Manatt and Sterling defeated Baylor’s discrimination claims at trial in 2011.
Clippers team president Andy Roeser released a statement over the weekend saying that the sentiments expressed in the TMZ recording did not reflect Sterling’s “views, beliefs or feelings.” Roeser, who was named as a codefendant in Baylor’s lawsuit against Sterling, said the team was conducting its own investigation of the recording. We reached out to Platt and two Manatt spokespeople to see if the firm was involved in the investigation, but did not hear back from them by the time of this post.
Meanwhile, the Clippers players staged a protest of the remarks on Sunday before their first-round playoff game with the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. The players silently took off their warm-up jackets and threw them down at half-court prior to the game and wore their long-sleeved red shooters shirts inside-out to hide the Clippers logo.
The players have asked Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson to serve as an adviser and spokesman regarding the investigation. Johnson is heading the search committee looking for a new executive director for the NBA Players Association. The NBAPA’s regular outside counsel, Jeffrey Kessler at Winston & Strawn, has been advising the union on the matter.