The ball is in NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s court. In word and deed, the league’s players have made their stance on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling clear: They want the NBA to levy the maximum punishment possible in response to racist remarks attributed to him.
“They want to know within the bylaws and the constitution, what are the maximum sanctions that are available for the Commissioner to mete out,” Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson said on behalf of the National Basketball Players Association on Sunday. “That’s what we’re trying to understand here and that is what the players want. If it allows a player to voice an opinion where a Commissioner and owners make a decision to remove somebody, then that’s certainly what the players would like to see.”
Speaking before the Clippers played against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on Sunday, Johnson, who played for the Phoenix Suns from 1987-2000, referred to this as a “defining moment” for the NBA and for Silver. The first crisis of Silver’s tenure as NBA Commissioner began on Friday evening when TMZ released an unverified audio recording of Sterling allegedly telling his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he doesn’t want her to bring black friends to Clippers games or post pictures with black friends on Instagram.
“The players are outraged by what took place,” Johnson told reporters on Sunday. “Due process has to take place. We are all committed to due process and I think what we’re all struggling with right now is how do we not get too hasty, a rush to judgment. On the same token, we can’t approach this with any hesitancy. And that’s the balance that we’re all trying to strike. I think the Commissioner, and if you think of the NBA in the past, it usually makes decisions really, really quickly and I don’t anticipate this being any different.”
Silver called the audio recording “truly offensive and disturbing” during a press conference on Saturday in Memphis. He announced that the NBA would be investigating the recording and that Sterling had agreed not to attend the Clippers’ game in Oakland on Sunday.
“All members of the NBA family should be afforded due process and a fair opportunity to present their side of any controversy, which is why I’m not yet prepared to discuss any potential sanctions against Donald Sterling,” Silver told reporters on Saturday. “We will, however, move extraordinarily quickly in our investigation.”
Law school does things to people. The training you receive forces you to analyze things in terms of the law rather than morality or right or wrong. So when I see an article saying that some NBA players want Donald Sterling “punished” my first thought is “For what?”
As far as I can see the only criminal statute that may have been violated in this case is the law against secretly recording conversations. That’s a misdemeanor in California. But Sterling isn’t the one who made the recording, his girlfriend is.
California law would also allow Sterling to sue his girlfriend for up to three times his actual damages, so she could be liable for any penalties the NBA imposes on him. There is an additional provision that states that an illegally recorded conversation is inadmissible in court, so the NBA could not legally use the recording against Sterling if this case ends up in a lawsuit.
I don’t know what the federal law is on this topic, so the exclusion provision may not apply in federal court.
The only possible cause of action by the NBA against Sterling would have to arise out of contract. I have no idea if there is a provision in the franchise arrangement between Sterling and the NBA that would allow them to impose sanctions of strip him of ownership under these facts.
I read one article over the weekend that pointed out that if Sterling is forced to sell the team he will make a huge profit, because the franchise is now worth over $500 million and Sterling originally paid less than 10% of that amount.
The fans can take action if they choose to do so, by boycotting Clippers’ games and merchandise.
Discrimination based on race is actionable in state and federal courts, but there is no evidence as of yet that Sterling discriminated against anyone. His sole offense was in thinking racist thoughts and saying racist things. Both of those things are protected by the Constitution.
Maybe he can get the ACLU to defend him.