Would Sterling Lawsuit Expose NBA Secrets?

Jun 13, 2014

The $2 billion sale of the L.A. Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is in limbo. Embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling is moving forward with his lawsuit against the NBA, saying he was forced unfairly to sell the team after his racist comments were made public.

Sterling this week called the NBA "a band of hypocrites and bullies" and "despicable monsters." And the Associated Press reports he's now hired several private investigators to dig up dirt on NBA commissioners and his fellow owners.

Does the NBA have anything to hide? KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says there's a crack in the NBA's case.

Does Sterling Have A Case?

Art says Sterling violated the NBA's own constitution.

"As a member of the NBA ownership group, he has signed on to the bylaws that are in the NBA constitution. And the NBA constitution is very specific about acts that they deem against the best interest of the NBA. And the league's lawyers have followed that protocol in the constitution very closely so that they think they have grounds to strip him of the team for his racist comments," Art said.

But then there are the issues of privacy and free speech.

"The problem the NBA has is those comments came in a private conversation in which he did not agree to have the contents shared with the public," Art continued. "That violates California state law. And I think it probably violates a lot of our own sensibilities about having our private remarks used against us to throw us out of our jobs or our school or whatever.

"I think there's a crack here in the NBA's case. I understand fully why the NBA felt compelled to remove him because of the consequences of his words on players, on sponsors, on a lot of things. But they left themselves vulnerable."

NBA 'Scared' Of What Lawsuit Might Reveal

Art says Sterling's lawsuit could contain some bombshells.

"What Sterling is trying to scare the NBA with is that he's got a lot of dirt on a lot of owners. Their private conversations may have been sent to him in an email or other ways. And the league is, I think, genuinely scared that a lot of things that they don't want out would be in discovery if this thing goes to trial," he said.

'Despicable Monsters'

Sterling said in a statement this week that he's not just fighting for the Clippers but taking a stand against the NBA, which he called "a band of hypocrites and bullies" and "despicable monsters" who want "to take away our privacy rights and freedom of speech."

Sterling says the league's leadership is "incompetent, inexperienced and angry." He asserts that the NBA "has a history of discriminatory practices" that's proven "by the numerous lawsuits filed by NBA employees claiming gender-based discrimination," adding that new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would rather focus on forcing him to sell than examining the league's history in that regard.

Sterling is suing the league for $1 billion. The league has sought to ban him for life, and fine him $2.5 million, after the racist remarks emerged in a recording in April.

NBA's Quick Action May Backfire

Art says the NBA moved quickly to fine and ban Sterling from the NBA. Players threatened to boycott the playoffs and sponsors threatened to pull their support.

"Striking that fast and that swiftly may have been justified at the moment, but it has unintended consequences that Sterling is now trying to exploit," Art said.

Husband Vs. Wife

CBS News.com reports a trial will be held next month to determine whether Sterling was properly removed as an administrator for the family trust that owns the team.

An attorney for Shelly Sterling went to probate court Wednesday to request a trial to confirm that as sole trustee she can proceed with the sale. Her lawyer said three doctors have filed reports saying Donald Sterling lacks the mental capacity to be a trustee. Donald Sterling's lawyers deny that he is mentally incapacitated.

NBA 'Must Stand Firm'

Art says the NBA can't back down on its punishment of Sterling despite what "dirt" could be revealed in his lawsuit.

"If they do get intimidated out of it then the laws are worthless for the next guy who makes a mistake and is forced to be ousted by the NBA." Art said.

"And Sterling has said, 'I'm not going to go without a fight.' He's had a 60-year history in business of making ridiculous lawsuits that are nuisances. And this could get to be a nuisance right into the season if they don't conclude the deal with Ballmer, and Sterling is still running the shop when October rolls around."

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You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest and Crosscut.com.