SBD/April 29, 2014/Franchises

Silver Has Options In Punishing Sterling, But Could Risk Inciting Legal Battle

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Silver could suspend Sterling indefinitely for his alleged comments
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is likely to hit Clippers Owner Donald Sterling "with a sizable fine and a lengthy suspension, perhaps with the intent of pressuring the real estate magnate into selling the franchise he has owned for 33 years," according to experts cited in a front-page piece by Pfeifer, Bolch & Rainey of the L.A. TIMES. League bylaws give the league the power to "oust owners in limited circumstances," but Silver more likely will cite Article 35 of the constitution that "allows the commissioner to indefinitely suspend owners for 'conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the association.'" L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he "welcomed a change in ownership and said that in the short run, at a minimum, the league should suspend Sterling for the remainder of the playoffs." Pfeifer, Bolch & Rainey report evidence emerged yesterday that if Sterling "maintained control of the team, he would face an angry and alienated group of employees." One Clippers player wondered whether he could "get out of his contract by citing Sterling for creating a 'hostile work environment'" (L.A. TIMES, 4/29). CBSSPORTS.com's Ken Berger predicted Silver will "hand out discipline for actions that are detrimental to the game by imposing an indefinite suspension." The suspension "could be imposed pending the outcome of the committee and full Board of Governors process, which potentially could take weeks or even months." Such action "likely would remove Sterling from his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the team ....while his fellow owners take the time needed to fully examine the issues and take definitive action." But Sterling "could seek an injunction of his own in federal court to block such a suspension" (CBSSPORTS.com, 4/28). 

COULD STERLING BE STRIPPED OF TEAM? YAHOO SPORTS' Adrian Wojnarowski cited several NBA officials as saying that they believe Silver "has been studying the nuclear option on Sterling: a provision in the NBA's bylaws that would allow Silver to summon a vote of league owners to strip Sterling of his ownership." The NBA would "run the Clippers until the team could be sold." Sterling's estranged wife Shelley "believes she can find a way to control the Clippers," but the league has "no intentions of the team staying in the family's hands." Wojnarowski: "That'll never be a compromise, because Silver and the owners understand the public tenor: The Sterling family must go" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 4/29). In N.Y., Fred Kerber notes an owner can be "stripped of his NBA team with a three-quarter vote of the other owners," specifically under "severe circumstances such as fraud or gambling" (N.Y. POST, 4/29). In California, Scott Reid cites a source as saying that while several NBA owners "reportedly believe an expected indefinite suspension and heavy fine are not punishment enough, there is division on whether Silver and the owners have the power to strip Sterling of the Clippers." Owners and NBA officials instead are "hopeful a suspension along with mounting pressure from current and former players, corporate sponsors and the media, will lead Sterling to sell the franchise" he purchased in '81 for $12.5M (ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER, 4/29). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Terlep & Cohen cite a source as saying the league is "unlikely to be able to remove" Sterling unless he "was insolvent or committed a crime." Sources feel a sale of the team "could easily fetch" $700M or more (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 4/29).

COLANGELO SAYS "GRAY AREA" EXISTS: Former Suns Owner Jerry Colangelo said it is a "gray area" if the league tries to invoke a morality clause to oust Sterling. Colangelo: "There certainly are parameters in terms of what autonomy the commissioner has in terms of taking action, in terms of a million-dollar fine being the maximum, but more importantly on suspension it could be a day, a week, a month. It could be forever. And when you start talking about a long-term suspension, that kind of forces someone to take stock of where they are, I guess, in terms of ownership." In Phoenix, Bob Young notes Sterling would "likely fight any ouster move in court" (ARIZONA REPUBLIC, 4/29). SI's Michael Rosenberg wrote Sterling's ownership of the Clippers is "inviolate" as long as he "pays his bills." Sterling "plays hard" within the legal system. Silver's challenge now is "to show Sterling the door, but he probably can't force him out." Rosenberg: "You can expect Sterling to be suspended for a year, with the likelihood of extending the suspension at the owners' meetings in July. Doing it that way would give Silver cover if Sterling sues and says Silver is abusing his powers. It would also allow Silver to accomplish another objective: setting up an exit for Sterling" (SI.com, 4/28). Meanwhile, NBA.com's David Aldridge wrote Silver can do what former NBA Commissioner David Stern "wouldn't -- dare Sterling to sue the league -- by suspending and fining Sterling within an inch of his life." A source said, "If I am Adam, I make him sue me. The Commissioner has broad powers to protect the game" (NBA.com, 4/28).

LONG LEGAL FIGHT COULD AWAIT: In L.A., Ben Bolch cites a league source as saying it is "unlikely the NBA would try to compel Sterling to sell the team" because of the possibility of a "vicious legal battle that could cost the league millions and result in Sterling keeping the team should he prevail, not to mention create a years-long distraction as the litigation plays out." But the league and Sterling’s fellow owners "could certainly pressure him to sell the team by publicly campaigning for change." Another avenue to get Sterling to sell the team would be for his wife to "file divorce papers that would require her husband to pay her 50% of community assets per California law" (L.A. TIMES, 4/29). The NATIONAL JOURNAL's Matt Berman wrote Sterling "will only go away when he's well and ready, and he'll likely do so with a big check in hand" (NATIONALJOURNAL.com, 4/28).

RIGHT TO PRIVACY?
Tulane Univ. Sports Law Program Dir Gabe Feldman said suspending Sterling for his comments could be tricky "because they were not made publicly." Feldman said, "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." Univ. of New Hampshire Sports and Entertainment Law Institute Dir Michael McCann said that 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" (L.A. TIMES, 4/29). In Chicago, Rick Morrissey writes Sterling "has the right to say whatever comes to mind, but it doesn’t mean he has a right to be an owner in good standing with the NBA" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 4/29).

SILVER'S STERN TEST
: USA TODAY's Jeff Zillgitt writes Silver "faces his first true watershed moment" as commissioner (USA TODAY, 4/29). ESPN's Tony Reali said this could be "prove to be a delineating moment" in NBA history. L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke said the "integrity of the NBA" is at stake, as well as the "integrity of the player relations with the NBA" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 4/28). NBA TV’s Stu Jackson said this is "one of the biggest decisions surrounding a crisis and damage control for the league." Jackson: "It is unfortunate that Adam has only been on the job for a few months, but this is what you get being the leader of this organization and this business” (“NBA Gametime," NBA TV, 4/28). One longtime NBA exec said: "In moments like this, a commissioner earns whatever his paycheck is. It’s a hard, hard job" (N.Y. POST, 4/29). In S.F., Bruce Jenkins writes as much as Silver wants to "bring down the hammer" today, it is "unlikely he will have completed his investigation so soon." The power to terminate an owner is "limited to things like gambling and fraud, 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'" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 4/29).

IS SUSPENSION, FINE ENOUGH? N.Y. Daily News columnist Mike Lupica said Silver imposing a lengthy suspension and fine on Sterling is "not going to be enough." Lupica: "The end game here ... is to get him out of the sport. Whatever is announced today, they want this guy out of the club." NBC's Matt Lauer said, "What's really going to happen here is in the offseason, all the other owners are going to get in a room with Donald Sterling and they're going to make a very strong case for him to get out of the game" ("Today," NBC, 4/29). SPORTS ON EARTH's Shaun Powell writes Silver is "soft-spoken and non-confrontational by nature," but he "must suddenly develop a pitbull mentality." The owners, players and basketball public "want blood" (SPORTS ON EARTH, 4/29). In Boston, Gerry Callahan writes the fans and media "want blood, but they're going to get red tape." They "want justice, but they’re going to get lawyers." The situation is "Silver's headache now, and it's going to get worse" (BOSTON HERALD, 4/29). The GLOBE & MAIL's Margaret Wente writes the NBA is "toothless," and the only people "with real power are the other owners." It is "far from certain what they'll do" (GLOBE & MAIL, 4/29).

MAGIC SAYS HE'S NOT INTERESTED: In Boston, Bob Ryan writes the other owners "must apply pressure" on Sterling to sell (BOSTON GLOBE, 4/29). But NBC's Joe Fryer reports Magic Johnson "says rumors that he wants to buy the Clippers are not true." That is contrary to a Yahoo report yesterday that indicated Johnson and Guggenheim Partners wanted an opportunity to purchase the team from Sterling ("Today," NBC, 4/29). ESPN's Jemele Hill said she hopes a Johnson-led takeover of the Clippers is "eventually what this moves toward," but added, "I have to be a little bit skeptical." Hill: "We're presuming that this is going to be an easy process to get his man to sell his team." L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke said Sterling "never does what anybody wants him to do, he never does the right thing." Plaschke: "If he's forced to sell, I'd be very surprised if he'll sell to Magic. He'll do something very strange. That's just him" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 4/28). ESPN's Michael Wilbon said he was told "there were at least five billionaires on the phone" with Silver "within three hours of Sterling's comments" becoming public. Wilbon: "There are going to be a lot of people out there who want to buy the Clippers" ("PTI," ESPN, 4/28).
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