NBA commissioner Adam Silver will step to a podium in Manhattan Tuesday to clean up a mess that David Stern and the NBA owners should have dealt with years ago — when there were more actionable items, more egregious actions that should have brought sanctions and pressure on Donald Sterling to sell, rather than having the situation swept under the rug and ignored.
It falls on Silver to deal with racist comments allegedly made by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
But what might Silver do? What will he say when he steps to that podium?
The best guess of most around the league is an indefinite suspension — Sterling can’t be involved with running the team nor may he attend their games or be around the team and franchise — as well as a fine of $1 million (or $2.5 million, depending on what part of the NBA’s constitution you are reading). Honestly the suspension part, keeping Sterling away from basking in the celebrity of owning a team, will be a bigger blow to him than the money.
What most people want — and that group seems to now include the other owners as well as people in the league office — is to get Sterling out. To get him to sell.
But can the league sell a team out from under an owner against his will? ESPN’s legal analyst Lester Munson is one of the few non-owners to have seen the NBA constitution, and he says yes.
Under the terms of Paragraph 13 of the constitution, the owners can terminate another owner’s franchise with a vote of three-fourths of the NBA Board of Governors, which is composed of all 30 owners. The power to terminate is limited to things like gambling and fraud in the application for ownership, but it also includes a provision for termination when an owner “fails to fulfill” a “contractual obligation” in “such a way as to affect the [NBA] or its members adversely.” Silver and the owners could assert that Sterling’s statements violated the constitution’s requirements to conduct business on a “reasonable” and “ethical” level.
What you can be sure of is that Sterling’s lawyers would assert this situation — where he will not be charged with a crime, this is a private matter — does not meet the standard of failing to fulfill a contract. Sterling is litigious and someone that does not sell or give up his properties — don’t expect him to be embarrassed or think of the good of the game. This is a guy who has had multiple former coaches have to sue him to get all the money they were owed in their contract. He likes a good fight, even if he knows he is in the wrong.
Munson says that Sterling could try to sue but likely will not have luck because of how the constitution is worded.
Nonetheless, Silver would prefer to not to have a long, public, messy court battle. Which is why the idea of a suspension and fine, giving the league time to try and pressure Sterling into deciding to sell is the most logical.
We will see if a fine and a suspension is enough for the players, enough to turn the focus for the league back on the court and away from the circus surrounding one owner.