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The legal aspects of Donald Sterling lifetime ban from NBA

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been banned from life by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been banned from life by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Photo by Ronald Martinez

This afternoon NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that he was banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life in response to Sterling controversial, degrading remarks towards African Americans. Silver announced that he will encourage owners "to begin immediately" to try and force Sterling to sell the team. If Sterling decides not to sell the team the ownership group could simply kick his team out of the league through a vote.

Silver's announcement was immediately well received by many political commentators, politicians, and NBA players and owners. However, some have questioned whether any of Sterling legal rights have been violated through the move.

Freedom of Speech

Like everyone else, Sterling speech is protected from government intrusion by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which protects the right to freedom of speech. However, the key words in that last sentence are "government intrusion."

In this case Sterling is being punished by the National Basketball Association, which is a private organization. Private organization can punish someone for their speech, particularly if that speech is harmful to the organization as is the case here.

If the federal, state, or local government was fining Sterling or banning him from the NBA then he would have a very good case. Instead, it is private owners who collectively are taking action against Sterling, and as such Sterling will not be able to run under the shelter of the First Amendment.

Due Process

Under the U.S. Constitution Sterling also has rights which keep him from being deprived of his life, liberty, or property without due process. In this case Sterling is arguably being deprived of his property through the forced sale of the team. However, once again these due process generally only apply to the government, and not to private organizations.

Just as a McDonalds would have the right to revoke the franchise agreement of an individual store owner, so the NBA has the right to revoke the franchise rights of the L.A. Clippers should Sterling remain their owner. The only due process rights Sterling would have in this case would be any rights granted to him under his ownership agreement with the league.

Contractual Rights

This brings us to what may be Sterling only legal remedy in this case. The NBA does not release the terms of the ownership agreements with each team owner. It is possible that Sterling's ownership agreement grants him some kind of right to a hearing, or that it only allows him to be deprived of his team under very specific circumstances. If this is the case, Sterling could theoretically sue for breach of contract and if he is successful he could even obtain an injunction ordering the NBA to allow him to remain as an owner.

In the end any legal dispute may be moot. Sterling bought the team $12 million in 1981 and the team is now valued to be worth $575 million according to Forbes magazine (many analysts believe the team could be sold for much more). Sterling stand to make a lot of money if he simply gives up and sells the team as the owners are now demanding. Still, if Sterling wants to be difficult and stand his ground there is at least the potential for dragging out the process through the court system depending on the terms of his contract with the league.

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