LOS ANGELES – 48 hours after racist comments made in private to his girlfriend by Donald Sterling were first reported by TMZ, new deputy NBA commissioner Adam Silver needs to take a stand.
With non-stop calls for his ouster and corporate sponsors either suspending or terminating their relationship with the Clippers, Silver’s first real test as NBA commissioner is not only a tough one, but a delicate one as well.
While this writer both personally and professionally condones Sterling’s cowardly and crude comments about “black people” attending his games, Silver could potentially define his legacy by making an example of the disgraced owner by demanding that he sell his team, strip him of his ownership, or publicly censure Sterling.
While such actions by a sitting commissioner would be unprecedented, Silver needs to come down hard and let the future Donald Sterling’s of the world know that such comments—public or private—regarding race are completely unacceptable and ambiguously wrong in today’s society.
With audio clips of Sterling’s diatribe playing 24 hours a day non-stop, Silver is faced with a tough decision how to properly punish—or ban—Sterling because of the way the audio tapes were obtained. If Silver chooses to strip or remove Sterling as owner of the Clippers, Sterling could—in theory—seek legal damages on the ground of privacy and defamation as the audio tapes were recorded illegally with his knowledge or consent.
Potential sanctions could be a combination of fines and draft picks being forfeited by the Clippers, the NBA Players Association could also become involved on the grounds of Sterling creating a hostile work environment. From a legal standpoint, if the NBA decided to move forward and suspending or removing Sterling, they will need to compile substantial evidence of how the NBA Constitution and bylaws were violated by Sterling and authenticating TMZ’s audio recordings.
Michael McCann, the sports law columnist from Sports Illustrated stated that the NBA constitution has language permitting owners to authorize the league to sell a team without an owner’s consent but does not authorize the league to sell because of an owner’s actions.
Based on McCann’s statement, one can assume that while the NBA could not force Sterling out entirely, and unless the TMZ tapes are indeed confirmed, then the NBA could face serious legal action from Sterling. McCann also added that Sterling could sue both the league and owners for breach of franchise agreement or for violations of federal and state anti-trust laws.
Bottom line is that Silver and the NBA face the danger of going down a very dangerous slippery slope and must tread carefully.
Make no mistake, the noble act of solidarity of playoff teams, fans and former players and celebrities around rallying behind the unfortunate Clipper players who have the misfortune of collecting paycheck from a close-minded racist such as Sterling is admirable, as noted by Golden State fans is a true sign of both racial and cultural unity. Silver and the NBA owners have the proverbial hammer that can put the nails in the final coffin of Sterling’s reign as Clippers.
The only question that remains to be answered is, how will Silver respond?