The National Basketball Association appears to be following NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lead – so far – in responding to the racist rant made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Ten team owners, or their representatives, who make up the Board of Governors’ advisory-finance committee, met on May 1 via a conference call and unanimously agreed to move “as expeditiously as possible,” according to a statement appearing on the NBA’s website.
On Tuesday, Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and imposed a $2.5 million fine for the offensive comments recorded in a conversation with his then-girlfriend. Silver also said he would do whatever he could to get the NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team.
Based on NBA rules, the forced sale of a team would require the support of three-fourths of the owners. The board may also be able to take control of the team and sell it on their own, according to Reuters.
Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and interim chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, appears sympathetic to Silver’s goals.
“We stand unified with Commissioner Silver today and reaffirm our organization’s zero tolerance approach to the type of reprehensible behavior which caused this action,” Taylor said in a recent statement.
The committee is expected to continue its discussions next week.
Still, there has been speculation from some sports lawyers, such as Robert Boland from New York University, that many owners may privately be hesitant to force the sale of the Clippers – for among other reasons that they do not want an action taken against Sterling to haunt them in the future.
And Boland predicted that Sterling would fight such a decision in court, especially given that he has fought many cases previously. Such a case would most likely cite antitrust laws, which would allow him to seek treble damages, Boland told InsideCounsel.
Meanwhile, there have been many news reports that Sterling is suffering from prostate cancer. If true, it may be possible that Sterling could argue his statements were made while he was suffering from a serious illness.
Under NBA rules, as listed in the Constitution and By-Laws, if the Board of Governors moves forward with a forced sale, Sterling would get a copy of any allegations within three days after the charges were made, and the NBA would give Sterling five days to respond. No more than 10 days after the response, all of the owners would hold a hearing. If Sterling does not respond to charges during the five days or fails to show up at the hearing it “would be deemed an admission of guilt,” according to NBA rules.
When weighing their options, the owners will likely look to Article 13 “Termination of Ownership or Membership” of the NBA Constitution and By-Laws. It holds in part that if owners “Willfully violate any of the provisions of the Constitution and By-Laws, resolutions, or agreements of the Association” the owner could be terminated. Also, another section would give the owners authority to remove an owner is he/she fails or refuses “to fulfill … contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.”
If a sale is forced, Sterling would no longer own the team and the team’s “assets, properties and operations shall be placed under the management and control of the Commissioner,” under NBA rules.
But Clay Travis, a lawyer, wrote for Fox Sports that there are “serious questions about whether the NBA has the legal authority to strip Donald Sterling’s ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers and force a sale of the franchise.”
He argues that “Sterling didn’t willfully broadcast these statements. He was secretly taped in a private residence engaged in a conversation with one other person. Then that tape was leaked to TMZ without his involvement or consent. Regardless of how inappropriate the NBA might find his comments, it’s fair to say that they were in no way intended to be official comments that were made to willfully violate NBA rules and regulations.”
In addition, “Sterling hasn’t violated any contractual obligations to the league, its members or the players – that is, he’s continued to pay these partners and is not in breach of their contracts – but could you argue that Sterling failed to meet his contractual obligations to the Clippers’ sponsors? (Sponsors here would be ‘any other third party.’) Maybe. But this is incredibly tenuous legal standing,” Travis adds. He points out that local sponsors pulled ads from the Clippers.
As far as the rules of procedure in a hearing, “Strict rules of evidence shall not apply, and all relevant and material evidence submitted prior to and at the hearing may be received and considered,” the NBA Constitution reads.
Meanwhile, members of the NBA’s executive committee now considering how to proceed include: Taylor; Miami Heat owner Micky Arison; Jeanie Buss, Los Angeles Lakers’ president; Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett; New York Knicks’ owner James Dolan; Boston Celtics’ owner Wyc Grousbeck; San Antonio Spurs’ owner Peter Holt; Phoenix Suns’ owner Robert Sarver; Indiana Pacers’ owner Herb Simon; and, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum who own the Toronto Raptors.
Bob Platt, who is the Clippers’ general counsel, had no comment on the issue this week, according to USA Today. Platt is a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and has been “General Counsel for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team from 1988 to the present.” In addition, the firm’s website says, “Platt has been one of Los Angeles’ most successful general commercial litigators for almost 30 years.” His specialties include sports law, housing discrimination lawsuits, and employment litigation.
If the team is sold, it may fetch as much as $1 billion, according to recent speculation. Among those possibly interested in acquiring the team are: Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, Larry Ellison, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Oscar De La Hoya.