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Why care about the Donald Sterling case? Let us count the ways.

The case unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom is more than a legal tussle between a feuding couple over the sale of an NBA team. Who gets to decide a person's mental incompetence is one key issue.

Mona S. Edwards/Reuters
Bert Fields, Shelly Sterling's lawyer, (l.) questions husband, Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Donald Sterling, in court, as seen in this courtroom sketch in Los Angeles, Calif., July 8, 2014.

As the case of Sterling v. Sterling enters its third day in a Los Angeles courtroom, the crossfire charges of fraud and bad faith rival anything a Hollywood screenwriter might dream up between a feuding couple.

But as much as this latest phase of the Sterling-NBA saga may seem like soap opera, it contains issues more important than whether Rochelle Sterling can sell the Los Angeles Clippers over the objections of her estranged husband, Donald Sterling.

For one, the case raises questions such as who gets to decide a person's mental incompetence. And through the larger public discourse, it also touches on whether someone's private communications and comments about public figures – even if they are racially inflammatory – are constitutionally protected speech.

“If we take this case out of the current context of an odious person making reprehensible statements, there are important principles that will stick with us far beyond the salacious details of this case,” says law professor Jody Armour at the University of Southern California. 
In high-profile cases such as this, Professor Armour notes, the public dialogue often becomes focused on emotional issues, as can be found in the Twitterverse.
Fans may not necessarily worry about legal principles, and they invest themselves heavily in their sports teams, says New York University’s David Hollander, who specializes in sports and society. Fans want to know that their favorite teams are not violating their own values, he says.

“We want to know if our sports leagues can be held accountable to these standards that say, if you hold beliefs that are morally repugnant to an overwhelmingly large portion of society we can expel you from our private club,” Mr. Hollander says.

While the probate court is focused on legal issues surrounding the pending sale of the Clippers, the public is tuned in to the broader dialogue surrounding the case – including emotional outrage that can overshadow important principles at stake in the Sterling case, says Armour. He sees this as a danger.

“We don’t necessarily want to purchase the satisfaction of moral rectitude at the price of important principles like privacy in your own home and the freedom to comment on public figures,” he says.

Since Mr. Sperling's private comments to his girlfriend became public (including admonitions that she not invite blacks to Clippers games), the NBA has meted out punishment that includes taking action to try to force a sale of the team to another owner. Sterling has not helped his cause by criticizing icon Magic Johnson during an interview with CNN. 

The NBA's actions and public outrage over Mr. Sterling's comments are behind Mrs. Sterling’s decision to sell the team.

At issue now in Los Angeles probate court is whether she is entitled to sell without the participation or consent of her husband. Both were trustees of the family revocable trust, which owns the team. Mrs. Sterling arranged for the $2 billion sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in May after having her husband declared mentally incompetent to function as a trustee of the trust.

But in early June, Mr. Sterling revoked the trust, alleging that his wife had acted in bad faith and setting the stage for this week's courtroom showdown.

On Monday, Sterling was not in the court room, and his failure to show was highlighted by Mrs. Sterling’s lawyer’s when they called her husband as a witness.

“This could not have helped his case,” says Robert Pugsley, who teaches at Southwestern Law  School in Los Angeles.

Sterling did show up in court Tuesday, listening to testimony from the two doctors his wife had hired to examine him and who ruled him mentally incompetent to handle trust affairs.

Sterling himself took the stand in the afternoon, when his behavior was by most accounts pugnacious and combative. He reportedly acknowledged being hard of hearing in one ear. At one point, according to one of the many Twitter feeds from the trial, Sterling challenged his questioner, “Are you going to misquote me again?”

After reading an ESPN reporter’s Twitter feed from the trial, Mr. Pugsley offered this assessment: Sterling’s behavior “probably didn’t do much to help him, because it had hallmarks of some form of cognitive impairment, at minimum.”

Sterling is due to return for more testimony on Wednesday.

While the public is riveted by the human drama, the question of age-related impairment is yet another reason the trial is so compelling, says Armour.

“The baby-boomer generation is coming up on retirement, and all these questions of mental competence in many areas of life are becoming more prominent,” he says. Whatever happens, this first decision about Mr. Sterling's competence will surely be appealed, he adds, sending the case to a state court of appeals, where important precedents can be set. 

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