Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has finally responded to the NBA’s May 27 deadline in a bid to save his ownership of his basketball team. Sterling had until Tuesday to protest the league's charge in advance of a June 3 hearing in which the NBA's other 29 owners will vote whether to force Sterling to sell his team, using bylaws in the NBA’s constitution that Sterling has agreed to for years.
Sterling, who was caught on tape saying terrible things about minorities to girlfriend V. Stiviano (comments Sterling at first disputed, then later admitted to and apologized for), has vowed to fight both his banishment from the NBA and never to pay the $2.5 million fine the league levied against him. In a report first published by USA Today, Sterling blamed the expulsion on a “lovers’ quarrel” gone wrong, complaining along the way the capital gains tax that he’d be forced to pay for selling the Clippers (in a deal that could net Sterling in upwards of $1.5-2 billion, pre-taxes) would be “egregious.”
So, in reality, Mr. Sterling is being banned for life, fined $2.5 million and stripped of his ownership for a purely private conversation with his lover that he did not know was being recorded and that he never intended would see the light of day.
We do not believe a court in the United States of America will enforce the draconian penalties imposed on Mr. Sterling in these circumstances, and indeed, we believe that preservation of Mr. Sterling’s constitutional rights requires that these sham proceedings be terminated in Mr. Sterling’s favor.
The response also went on to point out the NBA has not gone as far with any financial or banishment penalty with any player, owner, executive coach or team in the league’s history, and that his unwitting recorded conversation with V. Stiviano was and is against California law.
Sterling’s lawyers also referred to a litany of cases that, outside of a private ownership league like the NBA, would give any court precedence in stopping the league from forcing both the termination of Sterling from the NBA, and forcing his selling of the team.
His representatives then went after the private bylaw that the league is using to remove Sterling, one he signed over and over as Clippers owner in the years since taking the team over in 1982:
The first count in the Commissioner’s charge is brought under Article 13(d) of the NBA constitution.
Article 13(d) provides that owners or members may be terminated if they: “Fail or refuse to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.” (Charge, Ex. 2, Art. 13(d).)
A plain reading of this paragraph shows that it was intended to provide a termination remedy for owners that did not pay or otherwise fulfill contractual obligations to the NBA, the other members, players, or a third party. For instance, if an owner did not contribute their portion of revenue sharing, failed to pay players’ salaries, or breached a contract with a sponsor, termination might lie under Article 13(d). There is no evidence and there are no allegations that Mr. Sterling or the Clippers have failed to fulfill any of these contractual obligations.
Well, that’s one “plain reading.”
Another plain reading points to the scads of sponsors and thousands upon thousands of dollars lost by the Clippers (and, by extension, both the NBA and its other 29 owners via revenue sharing) in only the days following the release of his remarks and Silver’s banishment of him. Not only was this list of lost sponsors likely to grow longer and longer (with those thousands of dollars turning into millions) had Silver taken longer to come up with a solution with Sterling himself, but it’s more than possible the league would have seen unending boycotts from both financial partners, human rights groups and, oh yeah – fans and players and coaches too.
The response also goes on to question why Kobe Bryant sustained only a $100,000 fine some years back for using a homophobic slur in front of television cameras, why the NBA hasn’t come down on Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos who according to the Sterling’s lawyers “has made highly controversial comments against individuals with HIV/AIDS and generously supports anti-homosexual causes with impunity,” and weirdly questioned why Sterling was criticized for telling Anderson Cooper that African-Americans “don’t want to help anybody” in terms of aiding other African-American needs, while pointing out that Harry Belafonte once criticized Beyonce and Jay Z for not giving enough back to the African-American community.
As if Harry Belafonte owns the Phoenix Suns, or something.
Sterling’s lawyers then cited years of bad behavior from several NBA players, and quoted the in-lockstep responses from NBA teams and owners in supporting Silver as he moved to remove Sterling, calling the new NBA commissioner “prosecutor, jury and executioner” because of the seeming leaguewide consensus in the days leading up to a vote the USA Today says the Sterling family hopes will be pushed back.
Well, yeah. This is a private league. That’s Adam Silver’s role in a private league, a commissioner-plus-more gig that has been collectively bargained for years and agreed upon (in legal terms) by Sterling several times over the past three decades.
His lawyers will attempt to prove this hardly matters, and that U.S. law trumps all, and that the NBA is well outside of its rights in utilizing the sort of rights as a private, collectively bargained league that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has agreed to when it was morally and monetarily convenient for him to do so in 29 years prior to that “lovers’ quarrel.”
As most pointed out when Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA, the commissioner’s decision – while just – was far from a knockout punch. Now a frustrated league and its weary fans are wondering if we’re even out of the first round of this fight.
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