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Donald Sterling may have run out of luck with the NBA

Donald Sterling at a City of Hope event in Los Angeles 2010
Photo by Kevin Winter

Update: Sunday 10:00 am PDT: The website has just published a longer version of the audio recording between Donald Sterling and his girlfriend, in which he goes deeper into his feelings about her fraternizing with African Americans. The additional audio makes it difficult to say it might not be Sterling's voice. It doesn't clear up the issue of whether the audio has been doctored in any way. It has only inflamed the passions of those who are calling for Sterling's head and his dismissal as the owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. Original text below:


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference late Saturday in which he addressed the issue of Clippers owner Donald Sterling's alleged inflammatory remarks about black people being unwelcome at his team's games and more. In one of the most careful displays of responding to questions, Silver said only one thing of significance. The league will expedite its investigation into the authenticity of the audio taped conversation between Sterling and V. Stiviano, reported to be his girlfriend, that leaked online by celebrity site

Other than that he was speaking hesitantly, using written notes to be oh so careful not to incite the Clippers' owner, prior to a full investigation, which Silver relied on repeatedly to forestall any comments of substance. It's all about the investigation and it is there that Sterling may lose any cover for his thoughts, expressed in remarks allegedly made in what he must have believed was a private conversation.

When asked to comment on LeBron James' statement that there was no place in the league for Donald Sterling, Silver carefully said: "Donald Sterling should be afforded due process just as any player in this league.. It would be unwise of me and improper frankly to express a view,,,"

Adam Silver is a lawyer and he answered like one in response to a question about Sterling's past legal problems that stemmed from accusations of racial discrimination. The media member wondered if the man's past would be taken into account to deal with the current situation in a way.

The answer was no.

The Commissioner was careful to note that the financial settlement reached by Donald Sterling in the lawsuit brought by tenants of his buildings in Los Angeles was made to avoid a trial without an admission of wrongdoing. In other words, there was nothing the league could hang its hat on to punish him. Wealthy individuals gets sued and business owners do too and Sterling is both.

It matters not that the amount paid in the settlement was in the millions. He had been sued for much more. Scaled down to normal person size, it would be like being sued for an auto accident in which you damaged someone's vehicle and were being asked to cough up $100,000, but your insurance company chose to settle rather than take it to a trial. In legal terms, no fault was determined, but a pile of money was paid to keep the amount shelled out to a minimum.

It must be noted that when asked about the huge settlement Sterling has said it was picked up by an insurance company.

As for the other high profile race discrimination suit against Sterling, brought by his former general manager of the Clippers, Elgin Baylor, well that ended even better for him. He beat Baylor after a trial, even getting a judge to toss some of the most egregious accusations before the matter got to trial. He was found not liable for the remaining charges against him. if the league did nothing after a confidential settlement with tenants that included no admission, how could it wrap its arms around a suit against Sterling that netted him a victory?

It's why this might just be the moment Sterling can't run from. It's all about the tape. Nowhere in the Clippers statement did it note that Sterling denied the voice was his. There was a mention of doctoring and illegality but no denial. If Sterling didn't agree to being recorded it is a criminal offense in the state of California. Illegal wiretapping and recording a conversation without both parties' consent is a crime. It also allows the person taped to sue for damages.

When asked about whether he was aware that Major League Baseball suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, now deceased, not once but twice, Silver said he wasn't familiar with the specifics. He said he would be reviewing the facts, but the investigation is key, since the Clippers on behalf of its owner put the authenticity of the recording in issue.

Silver and league investigators will pore over the audio and also interview Sterling, who has an obligation to cooperate in a league investigation. Ms. Stiviano will more than likely be invited to speak with the league, but unlike Sterling has no obligation to. In fact, is she is concerned about being sued for making the recording (again, we don't know who taped it), she might just decline out of concern for herself becoming the defendant in another case brought by Sterling.

If Sterling admits he said the words on the audio recording or if the league can demonstrate that it is his voice without doctoring of the recording, the punishment most readily available to the NBA is a fine and potentially a suspension. Trying to wrest control of a franchise is almost impossible in this case. One might point to the case of former Dodgers' owner Frank McCourt and how MLB took over the club's day-to-day operations, leading to a forced sale of the club. In that case, there was a concern over how the club's finances were being run, and if payroll would be met on a month-to-month basis. That isn't the issue with Sterling.

Will a fine or suspension make a difference in Sterling's lifestyle or his wealth? The answer of course is no, but it will sting if he has to refrain from showing up at his team's games for fear of fan backlash and that of the players. He won't be able to hide behind denials as he did over his alleged discrimination in housing and employment were true.

It might just be the one thing Sterling can't control in his life, along with keeping his private conversations from going public.

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