NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted decisively – banning Donald Sterling for life, fining him $2.5 million and setting in motion a process that would force Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers if 3/4 of NBA owners vote in favor.
Silver would not have taken that last measure without absolute certainty he has the votes, and he’s not hiding confidence I what will happen next.
“I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him,” Silver said.
And how will Sterling take it?
“I have no idea,” Silver said.
Sterling is the huge wildcard here.
He could go silently into the night, accepting his billion dollars and fading from the spotlight. Or he could file a lawsuit and fight Silver’s punishment.
Sterling, in an off-camera interview with Fox News’ Jim Gray, indicated the latter is more likely. According to Gray, Sterling said the Clippers are not and would not be for sale.
I don’t see how this ends cleanly if Sterling pursues legal action.
The NBA constitution is not publicly available, but we’ve learned a little about it through published reports. How to interpret the document remains difficult, potentially even for those with access to it.
Before Silver announced his ruling, Tulane Sports Law Program Director Gabe Feldman explained the league’s constitution thusly:
A few basic (&belated) points re Sterling/NBA:My understanding of NBA Const is that Commish has power to suspend owner for definite or (1/3)— Gabe Feldman (@SportsLawGuy) April 28, 2014
indefinite period and/or fine up to $1M for "conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the [NBA]." Decision by commish is final as an arb award— Gabe Feldman (@SportsLawGuy) April 28, 2014
Removal of Sterling as owner limited to other, more extreme circumstances, including game fixing/betting and financial problems (3/3)— Gabe Feldman (@SportsLawGuy) April 28, 2014
If Sterling sues the NBA, the court could agree with Feldman and say some of the penalties – the extra $1.5 million in fines and having to sell the team – exceed Silver’s bounds. The NBA constitution is not a legal document, but parties can sue on the basis the league did not follow its own rules.
And then, if it gets that far, there’s the matter of the team being sold. Who runs the sale if Sterling is banished? Again, it’s not clear whether the NBA constitution spells this out, but Zach Lowe of Grantland reports how the league would plan to proceed:
League sources say Silver/league, not Sterling, would control Clips sales process in event Silver gets the required 3/4 vote to force it.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 29, 2014
Sterling would obviously have complete interest in selling the team for as much money as possible. The NBA would have a theoretical fiduciary duty to do the same, but considering Sterling would get the money, it might not be as urgent to the league as would be to him. Once more, that could be grounds for Sterling to sue, depending on the full text of the NBA constitution.
However, Lester Munson of ESPN also reported:
"When Silver issues his punishment to Sterling, the decision is final. The constitution provides in Paragraph 24(m) that a commissioner’s decision shall be “final, binding, and conclusive” and shall be as final as an award of arbitration. It is almost impossible to find a judge in the United States judicial system who would set aside an award of arbitration.When Silver issues his punishment to Sterling, the decision is final. The constitution provides in Paragraph 24(m) that a commissioner’s decision shall be “final, binding, and conclusive” and shall be as final as an award of arbitration. It is almost impossible to find a judge in the United States judicial system who would set aside an award of arbitration."
That doesn’t mean Sterling can’t sue. It would just make it more difficult, though not impossible, for him to win.
If Sterling sues, he could seek a stay to remain in power and/or damages. There’s no limit on the complexity or direction a potential lawsuit would take.
It would be up to the courts to determine the merits of Sterling’s claims.
Dan Feldman, NBC's Pro Basketball Talk