Expert Says Donald Sterling Is Prepared to Battle NBA

The Los Angeles branch of the NAACP has rescinded an award to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in light of the racially insensitive remarks attributed to him in an audiotape made public. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

The letter from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s attorney to the NBA claiming no wrongdoing on Sterling’s behalf is a persuasive indication he plans to fight the league in court, sports law expert Warren K. Zola says.

“It was to put the NBA on notice that they’re preparing to go to battle,” said Zola, an adjunct professor of business law at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “It’s clear that the attorney and, I assume, Donald Sterling do not feel any punishment is warranted. Clearly, that’s a precursor to litigation.”

USA TODAY Sports reported Thursday that Sterling’s lawyer, Maxwell M. Blecher, told the NBA his client will not pay the $2.5 million fine and that Sterling does not warrant “any punishment at all” and said the matter will need to be adjudicated.

The letter addresses only the fine, which Sterling missed the deadline to pay, and the lifetime ban, not the league’s push to terminate Sterling’s ownership.

“I don’t see any scenario in which he and his attorney have an ability to overturn either the ban or the league fine,” Zola said. “Quite frankly, even if he doesn’t pay the fine, it can be withheld from television payments as would interest from that fine.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the fine and ban April 29, when he also said he would urge NBA owners to force a sale of the Clippers. Silver’s stance came after a recording of Sterling making racist comments was made public, and the first-year commissioner received widespread praise around the NBA, including backing from all 29 other owners.

Using the NBA Constitution and By-Laws, the league thinks has a clear and unassailable case against Sterling, according to Zola. The NBA has homed in on Article 13(d), which states an owner may be terminated if the owner should “fail or refuse to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.”

Sterling also signed moral and ethical contracts as part of being an owner, and the league thinks he violated contractual obligations in the audio recording.

“The courts have a really hard time and will have a hard time overturning the internal constitution and bylaws within a private association unless those actions are arbitrary and capricious, and that doesn’t it appear that is the case,” Zola said.

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Jeff Zillgitt

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