NBA Commissioner Adam Silver dealt Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling an unprecedented blow by dealing the embattled boss a lifetime ban for racist comments Sterling made in a released audio recording of a private conversation.
Silver announced Tuesday the league has banned Sterling and fined him the maximum $2.5 million. Silver said Sterling admitted he was the voice on the recording.
The question now becomes whether the ban will hold up as Silver announced plans to conduct a vote of league owners with the hopes of forcing Sterling to sell the franchise embroiled in turmoil since the release of the tape.
Silver said he did not know if Sterling would fight the ban. Sterling is alleged to have made racist remarks in a recorded conversation with companion V. Stiviano. The contents of the recording shook the the basketball world and beyond.
The ban could be held up by an arbitrator, said Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
“I thought the NBA would take very strong action if they verified that Mr. Sterling made those remarks,” he said.
Because the commissioner is picked by the owners, an arbitrator might be more apt to take the commissioner’s side in arbitration even though arbitrators sometimes scale down punishments, Mitten said.
Mitten said it was significant that Silver said Sterling admitted to being the voice on the tape.
However, such a challenge with an arbitrator is difficult to predict, he said.
“This is unprecedented,” he said.
Still, others thought it might be difficult to uphold ousting an owner. Speaking before the announcement was made, Marc Edelman, an associate law professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business, said the league could have trouble booting Sterling as an owner.
“They run a reasonable risk of challenge,” said Edelman, who specializes in sports and antitrust law.
Arnold Perl, a prominent labor attorney with Glankler Brown, said the audio tape creates a problem for the NBA that goes beyond legal concerns. Perl said he was not privy to information other than what was being reported.
“It’s clear that the NBA determined that Mr. Sterling lost his license to lead,” Perl said.
Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million when the team played in San Diego. The team went more than 20 years before winning its first playoff series under Sterling’s ownership. But back-to-back Pacific Division titles have fans hoping the Clippers could break through and make the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.
The audio recording has splintered championship hopes as the team tries to rally around each other. Clippers coach Doc Rivers had said he believed Sterling made those remarks, though he admitted he still wanted to make sure the tape had not been doctored.
Players throughout the NBA have been vocal and united in their disgust of the tape. Some have called for Sterling to be removed, while others have taken to different forms of protest.
"Just to hear that comment, I mean, like, it's no place for that, know what I mean?" Memphis Grizzlies star forward Zach Randolph said according to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "It just makes you feel a certain type of way, honestly, in how they really look at us and you look at how far the game has come, and for him to feel like that, it's ridiculous and there's no place for it."
Perl said under California law, both parties must consent to a tape recording for the tape to be admissible in court. The alleged comments also came in a private conversation as opposed to a public interview. Former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended in 1996 after making a public comment favorable to Adolf Hitler.
But Perl said the problem extends far beyond the legal realm. Sponsors are dropping and players might be unwilling to sign with the Clippers this offseason.
“It’s not just the players on the Clippers that are legitimately upset,” Perl said.