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What Can The NBA Do With Donald Sterling?

In a protest against comments attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the team's players wore their red warm-up shirts inside out to hide the team's logo. The NBA is still working to confirm Sterling made the controversial statements.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
In a protest against comments attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the team's players wore their red warm-up shirts inside out to hide the team's logo. The NBA is still working to confirm Sterling made the controversial statements.

After a weekend in which the Los Angeles Clippers' playoff games were played in the shadow of racially inflammatory remarks attributed to team owner Donald Sterling, the NBA is trying to determine whether Sterling did in fact make the comments — and if he did, what to do about it.

The league has refused to elaborate on possible punishments, commenting on the matter only to say that it is investigating what Commissioner Adam Silver calls "disturbing and offensive" statements made on an audio recording that was published by TMZ Friday night.

If you're catching up to this story, Sterling is accused of criticizing a woman for "associating with black people" and saying of NBA legend Magic Johnson, "don't bring him to my games."

Those and other comments have sparked outrage and anger — and calls for the NBA to take the team away from Sterling.

The Clippers organization has released a statement that doesn't outright deny the voice on the recording belongs to Sterling. Calling the comments "the antithesis" of what Sterling actually believes, the Clippers say it's crucial to determine whether the audio might have been altered or edited.

If the tape is verified, Sterling's punishment could range from a fine to a suspension — or even expulsion from the league, according to Michael McCann, the director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

McCann spoke about those possibilities with NPR member station KPCC over the weekend. Here's how he breaks them down, listed by severity:

A fine "may be seen as the weak penalty," McCann says, "because Donald Sterling is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.9 billion." He adds that if it follows this path, the NBA would very likely donate the money to charity.

A suspension "would be a bolder step," McCann says. "It's one that the NBA hasn't taken but it's one that I think many people would find to be justified, especially his own players who are clearly upset by the remarks that he allegedly made."

An expulsion would mean that Sterling "would likely sue the NBA for breach of contract, his franchise agreement and potentially an antitrust claim," McCann says.

A long suspension would be one way the NBA could try to pressure Sterling into selling the team. But as McCann tells KPCC, the Clippers owner could make prolonged legal arguments over the fair value of the franchise.

It isn't likely that the NBA would consider the drastic step of revoking Sterling's standing as the owner of the Clippers franchise, ESPN reports, "because of the legal ramifications of such a bold decision."

Both the NBA and MLB have essentially arranged for owners' ouster in recent years — namely, New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn and LA Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. But in those cases, the team owners had lost the financial wherewithal to run their teams.

By contrast, "the Clippers are a booming franchise that would quite possibly command in excess of $1 billion on the open market," ESPN notes.

As NPR's Gene Demby writes for the Code Switch blog, there is "not a lot of precedent for penalizing an owner for bad behavior, and it's unclear just what the NBA can do."

One team owner who has been repeatedly punished by the NBA is the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban, who at last count had paid nearly $2 million in fines over the course of 14 years (and more in matching amounts he's given to charities).

But Cuban's infractions are widely seen as stemming from his passionate support for his team and players. While Cuban was fined for things such as criticizing officials and league policies, Sterling is accused of speaking out against racial mingling.

The bigotry on display in the audio recording has prompted comparisons to former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who as Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes, "didn't limit her ugliness to blacks. She spread it like buckshot. Schott offended everyone from scouts to Jews, gays to blacks."

As Daugherty reminds us, Schott was banned from baseball for one season — and then returned to opine about the merits of Adolf Hitler, remarks that earned her an even longer suspension. Schott sold the team following that second ban.

In Sterling's case, the incendiary remarks attributed to him have put new attention on earlier times that he was accused of racism.

Most notably, the Justice Department sued him in 2006, saying that Sterling, who has extensive real estate holdings, refused to lease property to African-Americans and others based on their race. Sterling eventually settled that case, paying a fine of $3 million.

In the current uproar, there has already been some fallout for Sterling and the Clippers organization. The team's players staged an on-court protest before Sunday's playoff game, when they dumped their team-branded warm-up jackets at half court to show all of them had turned their warm-up shirts inside out to hide the Clippers logo.

The LA team is also being punished economically. Several sponsors — including CarMax, Virgin America, and Mercedes-Benz dealers in California — cut ties with the Clippers on Monday. Two others — Kia Motors and State Farm — say they're putting things on hold. And USA Today reports that Red Bull and P. Diddy's water brand, AQUAHydrate, are ceasing their support of the team.

As for Sterling himself, the NAACP has announced that he won't receive a lifetime achievement award from its Los Angeles chapter, an honor he had been in line to receive before the recording emerged.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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