State of the NBA: Trending Upward

If you haven’t been paying attention to the NBA the past couple weeks, you are missing a show no less exciting than Game of Thrones. There have been eight overtime

Los Angeles Clippers logo
Los Angeles Clippers logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

games in the first round of playoffs this year. Last year there were nine overtime games total over all four rounds of the playoffs.

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“The first round of these NBA Playoffs have been the best in the history of the NBA,” Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter.

And the first round is barely halfway over.

Even with the enthralling theatrics of this year’s NBA playoffs, they have been overshadowed by a larger controversy.

Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a championship contending team battling the Golden State Warriors for a second-round berth, was banned from the NBA for life this week, incurring a $2.5 million fine in the process. Sterling has been identified on a recording, in which he said racist comments about his girlfriend’s Instagram account and bringing black men to his games.

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want,” Sterling said. “The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

African Americans make up 76.3 percent of NBA players, according to a 2013 racial and gender report card conducted by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Adam Silver, in his short, two-month tenure as NBA commissioner, had yet to establish an identity for himself when he was confronted with this controversy. After prominent figures from Michael Jordan to President Obama denounced Sterling’s comments, Silver responded on Tuesday by imposing a life-time ban, the maximum fine allowed under the NBA by-laws and a promise to force a sale of the Clippers from Sterling.

The League’s action was unprecedented, swift and decisive. But, forcing a sale of an NBA franchise is no simple matter. Sterling is famous for his litigation experience and has a long history of fighting contentious court battles. And, while Sterling cannot attend games, practices or any NBA event, he is still the legal owner of the Clippers.

CSU professor and practicing lawyer Lee Christian said that looking to the NBA constitution can clarify how the ownership battle will unfold.

“The NBA may say they are banning him, but the NBA’s constitution, bylaws and rules will speak to what limited grounds an owner can be forced to sell,” Christian said. “Those rules will speak to what sort of due process — hearing, appeal, etc. — that Sterling is entitled to.”

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The NBA constitution used to be a confidential document, but was released to the public after Tuesday’s announcement. Article 13 of the constitution says that a three-fourths vote of the Board of Governors is required.

But, the legalese gives Sterling plenty of ground to contest a forced sale, since there is no “morals clause” to justify the force-out. There is also no precedent for forcing out an owner due to offensive comments made public.

The Clippers owner has experience fighting lawsuits, including a 2009 suit brought against him accusing him of age and race discrimination. His history indicates a drawn-out legal battle may be forthcoming. Such a distraction is the last thing the League wants in the middle of playoffs, not to mention the high costs and potential to lose the suit.

But, Sterling may sell and make a quiet exit. He bought the Clippers for $12.5 million in 1981. The small market Milwaukee Bucks sold for $550 million just several weeks ago, and speculation from International Business Times and The Wall Street Journal estimate the Clippers could be sold from $700 million to $1 billion. Several potential buyers have emerged, such as Magic Johnson’s Guggenheim Partners, P. Diddy and Floyd Mayweather. The competitive bidding war that is about to occur would increase the selling price of the franchise even more, and the large return on investment may incentivize Sterling to not contest the sale.

In addition, the League will likely be able to demonstrate that Sterling’s comments hurt the bottom-line revenue — NBA teams share a portion of profits. In the wake of the scandal, advertisers Mercedes-Benz, Virgin-Airways, Carmax and others began to cut ties with the Clippers. League lawyers may also argue that the controversy damaged the NBA’s image and were detrimental to the League’s greater interests.

Sterling may have lawyers, resources, court experience and a history of being stubborn, but the full force of the NBA is too strong for even that disgraced owner. Fighting a losing suit would be petty, tarnish his legacy and distract from the playoffs. The best solution at this point would be for Sterling to yield the sale. That way, the fans, players and the League can go back to focusing on the spectacular basketball going on this postseason.

Collegian Editor at Large Zack Burley can be reached at news@collegian.com.