Will the NBA Owners Really Force Donald Sterling to Sell L.A. Clippers? (Analysis)

Now that Donald Sterling has been banned for life, league ownership is set to vote on the future of the basketball franchise.
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Donald Sterling

On Tuesday, the National Basketball Association banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million after a recording of him making racist comments surfaced. He’ll be barred from participating in league activities, from attending games (not just his own team's) and, most crucially, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he would recommend that the league’s board of governors vote to force a sale of the Clippers.

Sterling, a former attorney himself, is known to be litigious, and forcing his hand to sell when prospective buyers know the situation may provoke an antitrust lawsuit that other NBA owners are colluding against him. The NBA reportedly has a constitution that allows it to discipline in “the best interests of the Association,” but that applies to players. The Clippers franchise agreement includes a waiver on legal claims, but that might not extend to antitrust allegations. Still, the league isn’t without options: Under the constitution, revocation of team ownership can occur with a three-fourths vote of the other team owners. There also is some legal precedent for associations that impose restraints in order to avoid widespread liability.

VIDEO: L.A. Clippers Owner Donald Sterling Banned for Life, NBA Will Try to Force Sale of Team

For NBA owners, the Sterling decision has more calculus. Future punishments of players for outrageous off-the-court behavior will surely be seen through a prism of how the league treats Sterling. And then there’s other considerations like its attitude toward groups the NBA wishes to exclude from its ranks. “It would be sadly ironic if the NBA moves forward with its attempt to ban rising college sophomores from the league because they lack maturity but believes that 80-year-old Sterling is fit,” says sports law professor Marc Edelman.

To avoid a situation like the Sterling one in the future, some lawyers have suggested the league adopt the equivalent of a morals clause in its constitution. But owners might feel reticent about letting the strong anti-Sterling sentiment go down that path. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has already called it a “slippery slope.” At the press conference, Silver said, "I believe we have appropriate rules in place to deal with a situation like this."

VIDEO: Oprah Slams Clippers Owner Donald Sterling: 'A Plantation Mentality'

Interestingly, even if Sterling reacts to the punishment by willingly walking away from basketball, that won’t be the end of the legal repercussions of this incident. Given Sterling’s expressed desire to keep black people out of Clippers games, the NBA would have to oversee a fair process for the team sale. A lawsuit over exclusionary practices wouldn’t be unprecedented. In the early 1990s, Vincent Piazza and Vincent Tirendi sued Major League Baseball after being denied a purchase of the San Francisco Giants and after the chairman of baseball’s ownership committee raised “serious questions” about their background.

At the press conference, one reporter asked Silver whether he'd like to see more minority ownership. The commissioner wisely said he would be open to ownership from all races. Stated another way, unlike Sterling, he won't complain about whoever shows up.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner