Donald Sterling revives suit against NBA. Does he have legal leg to stand on?

The complaint by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling alleges breach of contract and antitrust violations. In the end, however, some say the court of public opinion may matter more than the court of law.

Mark J. Terrill/AP/File
Billionaire Donald Sterling looks on during the first half of the Los Angeles Clippers' game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Feb. 25, 2011.

In yet another flip-flop, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has revived his $1 billion lawsuit against the National Basketball Association. And while he may have long ago lost his case in the court of public opinion, the legal outcome is not as clear, experts say.

A complaint has been filed in US district court in California alleging breach of contract and antitrust violations, among other things. It will take time to sort out which actions will proceed, says Stuart Slotnick, an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in New York. But even if the public has tired of the Sterling saga, the legal issues themselves are compelling.

“This case potentially raises a wide range of very complicated and interesting issues,” he says. These include property and privacy rights, as well as the use of illegally obtained evidence. In addition, the move by his estranged wife, Rochelle Sterling, to sell the team on her own by invoking mental incompetence on her husband’s part raises issues of matrimonial rights and the granting of guardianship. 

The trigger for the entire action, of course, is the secretly recorded conversation in which Mr. Sterling made racist remarks, Mr. Slotnick notes. To make a secret recording is illegal under the California constitution, but whether that evidence will be precluded is up to the discretion of the judge. Criminal cases call for the suppression of illegally obtained evidence, he says, but this is a civil case, where such action is not by any means automatic.

Then there is a test of the NBA’s right to take unilateral actions against Sterling, says management consultant Abhay Padgaonkar, president of Innovative Solutions Consulting.

In his complaint, Sterling alleges that he is being treated differently than others such as Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal, who have been punished by the NBA – but far less severely.

While the NBA has the right to punish members according to its own rules, one issue is whether the NBA is consistently following those rules, says Mr. Padgaonkar, adding, “that can certainly be litigated.”

The purely "legal" question, if it is actually tested in a court of law, is whether the NBA was justified under its own constitution in banning Sterling for life, fining him $2.5 million, and stripping him of ownership, he says.

“I believe that the NBA may be skating on thin legal ice while attempting to act forcefully in response to the public outrage,” adds Padgaonkar, who made his comments via e-mail.

Still, Sterling’s willingness to continue the fight at all costs could be detrimental to the team he owns – and the sport itself, says New York attorney Mark Conrad, who runs the sports business program at Fordham University.

“A very strong case could be made that his actions have been detrimental to the NBA because it hurts the sport to be seen having an owner like that,” Mr. Conrad says. In addition, he says, “many of the players were deeply offended by his comments.” If players opt to walk out or strike as a result, this is very damaging not just to the teams involved, but to the overall image and revenues of the sport, he says.

In the end, the court of public opinion may matter more than the court of law, says Michael Smith, a professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Whether the league treated someone considered to be a racist, philandering, dithering owner of a historically underperforming franchise fairly is probably not going to concern many fans,” he says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.