What Can the NBA Do to Donald Sterling?

Credit: Thinkstock

Ever since word of Donald Sterling’s alleged racist rant made the news, nearly everyone has been calling for the Clippers owner’s resignation. But can the NBA legally fire Sterling?

“This is probably one of the most complex issues we have in professional sports is the misdeeds of an owner,” says sports lawyer and business and sports analyst Exavier Pope.

But before any kind of punishment can be doled out, Pope says the recording featuring what many believe is Sterling’s voice must be authenticated.

“California is a two-party consent state, which means that both parties must give consent to be recorded,” explains Sterling. “But if they don’t, then it’s illegal … If it’s ever brought up in court, it can’t be used as evidence.”

Another alternative is for the NBA to use a voice expert to determine if it is Sterling on the recording with then-girlfriend V. Stiviano.

Even then, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which is essentially the league’s contract with the players, doesn’t apply to owners, leaving the NBA with few legal options to take against Sterling.

While the league cannot legally force Sterling to sell ownership of the team, the NBA could pressure him to sell by suspending day-to-day operations like the MLB did with former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, according to Pope.

In that case, Schott was suspended for making racial slurs and seemingly praising Hitler. Forced with an ultimatum, Schott sold control of the Reds in 1999.

But, even if the NBA took a similar path with Sterling, the Clippers owner, who bought the team in 1981 for $12 million, would stand to gain a profit of more than $700 million.

“Sterling loves to be on the sidelines of the games and prove he’s a hot shot owner,” says Pope. “Suspending him from day-to-day operations may not necessarily force him to sell the team, but it does get him out of running the team. So people who aren’t a part of the controversy, such as the accountants, Blake Griffin and the popcorn vendor, can focus on the business of basketball. But Sterling still benefits financially.”

Another option is to hit Sterling where it’ll hurt–his pockets.

“The league could give him an unprecedented fine, upward of $20 million,” says Pope. “The NBA, in its due course of normal business, fines players, coaches, teams and owners. When fining is a normal course of business, the person being fined can deduct the amount from taxes under section 162 of the IRS tax code. The NBA typically takes the money and donates it to charity. But Sterling gets to write it off on his taxes, so it’s a win-win for him.”

In addition to charity, Pope suggests the NBA devote some of those resources to “helping minorities forge a pathway to ownership in professional sports.”

“Either way, the NBA should help the African-American community with healing and reconciliation,” he says.

Fans can get in on the action, too, by forming unions and staging organized protests. NBA players can take a stand as well.

“They are able to boycott,” says Pope. “They did stage an act of protest yesterday by turning their warmups inside out. They could be fined by violating collective bargaining agreement, but  the league is not likely to do that because of the sensitive nature going on.”

But is that enough?

Muhammad Ali gave up five years in his prime to fight for what he believed in,” says Pope. “Turning your jerseys inside out may not go far enough.”


Check out this riveting column about minority ownership from our sister site, HERE.