Last week, after agreeing to allow his wife to broker a sale of their NBA franchise, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling appeared to be bringing an end to the sordid saga of racist rants and the forced divestiture of a billion-dollar-plus property.
But on Tuesday, the NBA’s longest-tenured owner reversed course, delivering a scathing, 32-page response to the NBA’s attempts to take away his team. He called the league’s procedure a “sham” that relies solely upon information borne from the “fruit of the poisonous tree” – the common legal doctrine that excludes any evidence obtained in violation of any law.
Indeed, the response outlined the legal nitty-gritty of a case that now promises to drag on for months if not longer. Mr. Sterling's attorney, Maxwell Blecher, a noted antitrust litigator, told ESPN on Tuesday that his client “is going to fight to the bloody end” to keep his team.
Last week, the league issued formal charges against Sterling, setting a June 3 hearing to determine whether he violated the NBA’s constitution and bylaws with a racist rant that was secretly recorded by his alleged mistress, V. Stiviano, and became public in April. The league’s 29 other owners are set to strip Sterling of his 33-year ownership of the Clippers, if a three-fourths majority votes for his ouster.
According to reports, his wife, Shelly Sterling, had been secretly meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver last week to “resolve the dispute amicably,” according to TMZ, which broke the story in April and the news last week. On Wednesday, the celebrity gossip website said it had obtained a copy of a letter, signed by Mr. Sterling, that authorized “Rochelle Sterling to negotiate with the National Basketball Association regarding all issues in connection with a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers team.”
“I don’t know what agreement she has with him, but I’m saying to you today, he disavows anything she’s doing to sell the team,” Mr. Blecher said on Tuesday. “He says, ‘It’s my team, and I’ll sell it when and if I get around to it.’ ”
At the beginning of his written response, Sterling told the NBA that he has already received “offers in excess of $2.5 billion for the purchase of the team.”
The defiance aside, Sterling’s detailed response to the NBA’s charges is a “very strong legal defense,” some analysts say, rooted in NBA precedent and plausible legal reasoning.
Sterling said that the NBA’s charges “did not have the courage, decency, or honesty” to put his racist rant in the context of a heated “lover’s quarrel.” "This was an argument by a jealous man and the woman he loved that never should have left the privacy of the living room," states the letter, which was signed by Sterling himself and not his attorney.
While his words were offensive and wrong, the letter suggests, Ms. Stiviano’s recording was an illegal violation of his privacy. In any case, they hardly merit “the equivalent of a death penalty” as punishment, the letter states.
“We do not believe a court in the United States of America will enforce the draconian penalties imposed on Mr. Sterling in these circumstances,” Sterling wrote, “and indeed, we believe that preservation of Mr. Sterling’s constitutional rights requires that these sham proceedings be terminated in Mr. Sterling’s favor.”
Sterling also listed similar offensive statements and past actions by other members of the NBA – none of which drew anything close to the “draconian” punishments levied on the Clippers owner.
The letter alluded to Kobe Bryant’s homophobic slur directed against a referee in 2011, for which the NBA fined the Los Angeles Lakers superstar $100,000. Sterling also called out Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos, who has donated $500,000 to organizations against gay marriage and who has said those with HIV are responsible for their actions, prompting cries for a boycott by LGBT groups. The letter lists a number of other incidents.
“While Mr. Sterling’s opinions may be unpopular and false, they remain opinions,” the letter states, asking, too, if the NBA is "willing to set a standard that an individual can be punished for voicing a negative opinion.” It continues, “If so, such a standard will make short shrift of many players and coaches. It will also needlessly suppress free speech.”
Legal experts point out that while California law makes it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of both parties, the NBA is based in New York, which allows such recordings. And according to the NBA constitution, its hearings do not abide by the same rules of evidence required in courtrooms.
Sterling’s wife also filed a response to the league on Tuesday, reasserting her 50 percent stake in the team and saying she is being unfairly punished for her husband's actions.
“This evening, the NBA received responses from Donald and Shelly Sterling to the charge to terminate the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers,” Michael Bass, an NBA executive vice president, said in a news release Tuesday night. “The NBA Board of Governors will meet on June 3 at 1 p.m. in New York City to hear and vote upon this matter. Should the Board vote to sustain the charge, the Sterlings’ interests in the Clippers will be terminated and the team will be sold.”