Bounced out the NBA playoffs in second round by the Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma Thunder, Donald Sterling continues to flail around after getting banned for life and fined $2.5 million from the NBA by Commissioner Adam Silver April 29. Silver put Sterling on notice that he intended to get at least 75% of NBA owners, per the NBA rules, to force the 80-year-old Los Angeles real estate tycoon to sell the team. When a secret recording by Sterling’s 31-year-old lady-friend V. Stiviano was broadcast on Hollywood gossip site TMZ Sports it instantly went viral, causing a national uproar. Sterling was heard telling “V” to not associate or bring blacks to Clippers’ games, offending just about everyone. Concluding his punishment didn’t fit the crime, Sterling hired Los Angeles antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher to fight the NBA for what he sees as denial of due process.
When Silver put down the hammer April 29, he did so to save the NBA playoffs, with the Players Association threatening to boycott if Sterling weren’t banned. Silver’s legal team, operating under the NBA’s constitution, believes they have the right to ban Sterling for life for harming the NBA brand and debasing the sport. Sterling doesn’t see all the harm in his secretly recorded racist rant, despite apologizing May 11 to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an exclusive interview. Cooper got more than he bargained for, allowing the octogenarian to go off the rails on NBA icon Magic Johnson, telling Cooper Magic’s no role model for sleeping around and getting HIV. Sterling’s off-the-wall remarks about Magic raise more doubts about Sterling’s judgment, the exact same problems that go him into hot water. Blecher can argue the law but he can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Sterling thinks its no big deal to make disparaging comments about blacks, despite owning an NBA franchise in a predominantly black sport. His words were so offensive, so hurtful, so classless, so insensitive, so outrageous that it forced Silver to rid the NBA of any connection to Sterling. While it’s reasonable to ask whether or not Sterling’s really a racist, it’s not unreasonable to eject Sterling from the NBA. It’s perfectly within Sterling’s rights to protest his $2.5 million fine and ejection from the NBA. Blecher can’t un-ring the bell, only argue legal technicalities about preserving Sterling’s due process and property rights under the California and U.S. constitutions. As a proprietary private enterprise, the NBA can create its own rules regarding membership, much the same way private clubs in America reserve the right to approve membership or serve guests.
Sterling’s long-winded interview with Cooper vacillated from almost normal to confirming his estranged wife Shelly’s diagnosis of dementia. In “V”‘s private recording, Sterling revealed a pathetic lonely old man clinging to his 31-year-old pet Girl-Friday, throwing a fit on tape over petty jealousy. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, but don’t put [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me,” Sterling said on “V”‘s secret recording. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with-walking with black people,” Sterling ranted on tape. Once the recording went viral on TMZ Sports, there wasn’t much empathy for the 80-year-old billionaire throwing a jealous fit in response to his pet’s shenanigans with her friends. Sterling tried to apologize May 11 on CNN’s “AC360,” only to find himself ranting more about Magic.
Sterling humiliated himself on tape before his fellow NBA owners, making it impossible to continue his NBA franchise. Running around with thirty-something’s, embarrassing the league, putting on record racist remarks, shows the kind of abysmal judgment that warrants Sterling’s eviction from the NBA. Holding any professional sports franchise is a fiduciary duty to the public, requiring more than typical slumlord behavior, tolerated in certain circles, protected under First Amendment rights but not forgiven when it comes to violating the public trust. “We reject your demand for payment,” said Blecher’s letter to the NBA. Sterling’s desire to fight with NBA has little to do with the league’s right to exercise its legal right to terminate his franchise for moral turpitude, causing undue harm the NBA brand. If Sterling’s on his way out, what’s the point of paying the fine?
Hiring a high-priced litigator means nothing when it comes to the NBA’s right to evict Sterling from the league. In a moment of lucidity with Anderson Cooper May 11, Sterling questioned whether litigation would be worth it considering the cost and PR damage to himself and the league. Whatever Sterling’s claims about property rights, he’s going to get more than fair-market-value when the NBA finds a suitable buyer. Putting his team through the ringer during the Western Conference Semifinals didn’t help his team’s chances in the playoffs. Sterling’s attorney can argue the law but he can’t undo the irreversible PR damage done to himself and the NBA. If he battles the NBA legally, it won’t bode well for the eventual bidding war once the Clippers go on sale. Putting Blecher on the case might save Sterling’s due process but won’t reverse irreparable harm done to his reputation and the NBA.