Contractual Issues

The NBA vs. Donald (and Shelly) Sterling

This is a guest post by Marty Hudson, a sports fanatic just now making his way into the online writing world. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two dogs.

If you thought the Donald Sterling issue was starting to fade away, think again. Just this past Monday, Sterling gave his first interview since being publicly disgraced and banned from NBA activities by league commissioner Adam Silver. In the process of offering what he deemed an apology, Sterling was inconceivably offensive yet again. Answering only the shortest and simplest questions from CNN veteran Anderson Cooper, Sterling implied that he’s entitled to a mistake. He then attempted to shift the conversation to Magic Johnson, and his evident shortcomings as a role model, in Sterling’s eyes.

If there’s a positive anywhere in this situation for the Los Angeles Clippers organization—aside from likely being rid of someone who seems to harbor a plantation mentality to owning a professional basketball team—it’s that they may just be playing with more heart than any other team in the playoffs. Not only did the team pull off a thrilling 7-game series win over the Golden State Warriors in the midst of the Sterling scandal, but they’re currently giving the Oklahoma City Thunder and MVP Kevin Durant all they can handle—and it’s been all heart. After the Clippers fell down 2-1 in this series, Betfair sports predicted a win in game 4, but specifically noted that head coach Doc Rivers had called for more intensity and aggressiveness in the Clips’ approach to guarding the Thunder stars. I’m not sure he could have hoped for a better response to this demand than having his star point guard, Chris Paul, switch to guarding the much taller Durant and more or less shut him down.

Was this a direct result of the Sterling scandal? Of course not, and to say so would be to insult the Clippers, who are a very talented and well-coached team. But there does seem to be a certain edge to them now. It’s fair to say that this may be at least in part due to the growth a team can experience going through an ordeal like this. More efforts like what we saw from CP3 in game 4 will only strengthen the idea that in rallying together to push through controversy, the Clippers have, in the weirdest of ways, improved.

But where does all this leave Sterling? Despite Adam Silver’s emphatic and admirable handling of the situation, legal issues remain. Also, both Sterling and his wife have indicated in their own ways that they’d like to maintain ownership of the team. This of course has raised the question: can the league legally force him out?

The issue for Donald Sterling looks pretty bleak. As stated multiple times by Adam Silver and a number of analysts who have spoken on the manner, the NBA needs only a 3/4 majority of its owners (22 out of 29, with the 30th being Sterling) to approve of Silver’s ban for it to be imposed and for Sterling to be forced to sell the team. Where things get somewhat trickier is with wife Shelly Sterling’s insistence that she’d like to keep the team in the family. It is believed at this stage, however, that the same legality allowing the NBA to oust Donald Sterling will also likely apply to Shelly.

According to Sports Illustrated, it is article 13(d) of the NBA’s constitution that will be used in legal proceedings. While article 13(a) bars the willful violation of league terms and documents (which include documents an owner signs related to immoral issues and unethical conduct), Sterling’s initial racist comments were heard on a private recording. They were then released to the public without his approval and cannot be called “willful.”

Article 13(d), however, essentially states that an owner cannot fail or refuse to fulfill contractual obligations to the league in any way that affects the league adversely. Even more crucial—for the legal debate of Shelly Sterling’s claim to the team—is that Article 13 indicates anyone else with a legal claim to Donald Sterling’s ownership interest would have that claim terminated if his own controlling interest were indeed to be officially terminated. This seems to indicate that Shelly Sterling may not have any control over her own stake.

Regardless of the NBA’s evident legal right to dismiss all ownership claims related to the Sterlings, however, it appears we’re in for a fight and likely one that will be fairly public in nature. Shelly Sterling has, for her part, vowed to take part in this fight, even as the NBA has insisted she’s out if her husband’s out. Let’s just hope someone keeps Mr. Sterling away from live microphones in the process.