Donald Sterling: Will it be hard to force him out of NBA?

Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been given a lifetime ban by the NBA commissioner. But forcing him to sell the team could be more difficult.

Kathy Willens/AP
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media during a news conference in New York Tuesday. Mr. Silver announced that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been banned for life by the league in response to racist comments the league says he made in a recorded conversation.

The announcement by National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver Tuesday that he will immediately urge league owners to force Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers sets in motion a clear chain events with an unclear conclusion.

Mr. Silver gave Mr. Sterling a lifetime ban from all NBA-related activities and fined him $2.5 million in connection with racist comments he allegedly made to a former girlfriend. Silver's attempts to expel Sterling from the ranks of NBA ownership, however, could be fraught with difficulties.

To oust Sterling, 23 of the 30 NBA owners need to vote to force him to sell the Clippers. That should be easy, analysts say. The more difficult task could be getting Sterling to relinquish control of the club without a legal fight. 

“There could be significant antitrust issues here as a group of co-owners take a joint decision to force someone to sell his/her business,” says Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University in New York. “Sterling is a litigator by training and may not be bashful to utilize it to keep his team.”

The first step is for Silver to schedule a special meeting of the Board of Governors (comprising the 30 owners) within 10 days of a written charge describing the violation – in this case, egregious behavior damaging to the image of the league. Sterling would then have five days to respond to the charge with a written answer. At a scheduled meeting, both sides would have a chance to present their evidence, and then the board would vote.

Many owners have already been quoted condemning Sterling. For example:

  • Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said before the press conference that “there's got to be a way to disrupt [Sterling] from owning the team.”
  • Philadelphia 76ers managing owner Josh Harris said, "Without question, discrimination in any form is unacceptable and has no place in the National Basketball Association or anywhere else in society."
  • Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanie Buss, said “the comments and sentiments expressed on the tape are reprehensible and disturbing, and certainly are the opposite of how the Lakers feel about the league's players and fans.”
  • Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon said Sterling’s comments “are appalling, offensive, and totally contrary to my core beliefs and everyone in our entire organization.”
  • Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive tweeted Saturday night: “We must have zero tolerance. Fully support commish Silver @NBA.”
  • Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf told NBA writer Matt Moore: It's “not acceptable for the owner of an NBA franchise or anyone in professional sports.”
  • The list goes on, from Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis (“There should be zero tolerance for hate-mongering”) to Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob (“It's very sad that we have to all go through this”).

"I'm thinking the players, fans, and especially those associated with the team are more than satisfied that the league took their interests to heart," says Frank Shorr, director of the Sports Institute at Boston University. "I expect the vote of the remaining owners to be unanimous in removing Mr. Sterling."

But some legal experts say litigation could be lengthy if Sterling decides to dig in.

Silver may have “potentially boxed the NBA in” with comments he made at a Saturday press conference, says Eldon Ham, an adjunct professor at Chicago–Kent College of Law.

“He twice said that Sterling deserved ‘due process,’ but neither the NBA nor NFL are bound by that,” he says. Due process involves tighter rules of evidence, subpoena power, and witnesses procedure “that might give Sterling something to hang his argument on if he really wants to drag things out.”

The best answer, most analysts say, would be for the NBA to create a strong incentive for Sterling to sell. Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12 million. The club is currently valued at $575 million.

“It seems clear to me that Silver has recognized substantial difficulty in forcing [Sterling] to sell against his will and there are several interpretations of the NBA rules that might lend themselves to that,” says Jesse Choper, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. “Some of the rules are not clear and would take only a court to decide. My guess is they are hoping he will realize he can make a nice profit by selling, and that he will.”

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