Donald Sterling scandal: Sports law experts weigh in

Clippers owner Donald Sterling, right, and V. Stiviano watch the Clippers play the Lakers in a 2010 preseason game. What possible steps could the NBA take if it chooses to punish Sterling for racist comments he allegedly made?
(Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University, said potential discipline for Clippers owner Donald Sterling in the wake of racist remarks Sterling purportedly made would be limited to a suspension and a fine of up to $1 million.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is expected to announce a decision on Sterling’s punishment Tuesday morning in New York, hours before the Clippers play the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series at Staples Center.

Though provisions exist in NBA bylaws allowing owners to expel one of their members, Feldman said, they are limited to a financial inability to run a team, gambling on a team or game fixing.


Full coverage: The Donald Sterling controversy

The National Basketball Players Assn. has already asked the NBA to keep Sterling away from remaining playoff games this season, which would amount to a de facto suspension for the remainder of the postseason. A formal suspension also seems likely, though there is no precedent to establish its length.

“This is uncharted territory with a new commissioner with a very complicated issue where we have private statements that became public,” Feldman said. “This is not a question about whether the comments are acceptable. I think we all agree they are unacceptable and abhorrent, but the issue becomes stickier because they were not made publicly. That does not excuse the comments, but it does raise the issue of whether owners have empowered the commissioner to punish an owner for comments made in private.”

Sports law expert Michael McCann, the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said the most effective way for the NBA to extract Sterling from ownership might be to impose a one- or two-year suspension while working with him to sell the team.

More severe punishment such as a lifetime suspension, McCann said, would be likely to trigger a burdensome lawsuit from the notoriously litigious owner.

“I think there’s a distinction between what Adam Silver could do as a maximum penalty versus what is the maximum penalty that would lead to the optimal outcome,” McCann said.


McCann said it was unlikely the league would try to extricate Sterling under a provision of its constitution that allows for termination of franchise ownership when an owner “fails to fulfill” a “contractual obligation” in “such a way as to affect the [NBA] or its members adversely.

“He would absolutely sue over that,” McCann said of Sterling. “That is vague enough.”

The NBA would have a better case for ridding itself of Sterling, McCann said, if sponsors severed ties with the Clippers and the league, hurting the league’s finances.

Feldman said the best recourse for owners to oust Sterling may be to exert pressure on him to sell the team, which could be done in part by continuing to speak out against his alleged remarks through social and traditional media.

“It’s certainly possible with pressure from players, the players association and sponsors that that may be enough incentive for Donald Sterling to sell to the right buyer,” Feldman said.

Feldman said there is no clause in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement that would allow Clippers players to void their contracts and leave the team based on statements made by an owner.