Because owning an NBA franchise means never having to say that you’re sorry, Clippers owner Donald Sterling announced that he will sue the league after previously expressing through his attorney that he was withdrawing the lawsuit. Sterling, who came under fire from players, other owners, and fans of professional basketball after a recording of him in the midst of a racist tirade was leaked to TMZ, had previously been removed from the decision-making process in regards to the sale of his team by his wife, Shelly Sterling, after being found mentally unfit by doctors she’d hired. And because this is an important point that needs to be reiterated, this has absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment.
To recap: When the Sterling recordings leaked, the NBA decided to revoke Sterling’s ownership of a National Basketball Association franchise. Sterling decided to sue the league for a violation of antitrust laws by forcing the sale of the team. Sterling’s wife then removed him from a position of authority in the Sterling Family Trust — the organization that owns the team, legally speaking — and sold the team to Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO. As part of the sales agreement, the Sterling Family Trust agreed to indemnify the league from any legal action taken against it as a result of the Clippers sale, which means that if Sterling sues the league, he’ll wind up reimbursing it for legal fees, regardless of the eventual result of the suit.
Make sense? Sterling is suing the league, which will have its expenses paid by Sterling because it “forced him” to sell the team for $2 billion, even though the Clippers owner had previously authorized his wife to sell the team on his behalf. His position has waffled back and forth several times over the past month, and the fate of the suit seems to depend entirely on the capricious moods of an 80-year-old man who may not be mentally sound.
Sterling addressed the issue himself in a letter circulated among the league. Per ESPN, the owner wrote: “I believe that Adam Silver acted in haste by illegally ordering the forced sale of the Clippers, banning me for life from the NBA and imposing the fine. Adam Silver’s conduct in doing so without conducting any real investigation was wrong. The action taken by Adam Silver and the NBA constitutes a violation of my rights and fly in the face of the freedoms that are afforded to all Americans. I have decided that I must fight to protect my rights. While my position may not be popular, I believe that my rights to privacy and the preservation of my rights to due process should not be trampled.”
This is, unsurprisingly, misguided. The NBA Board of Governors has the absolute right to terminate an ownership’s interest in an NBA franchise, according to the NBA’s Constitution, which you can find here. So, yes, while it’s awful for Sterling that his private conversation was leaked to the public, it has very little bearing on what the NBA is doing, because each NBA owner is bound to the NBA Constitution, and Sterling clearly meets the grounds for ownership termination by virtue of the negative attention his comments brought to the league, whether they were made public with his consent or not. The fact that the league is trying to conduct a sale of the team speaks more to its wish to get this over with quickly rather than some nefarious plot to defraud Sterling of his team.