Five days after Donald Sterling announced he would not block the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion and drop his $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA, Sterling reversed course Monday night, announcing that he plans to continue with his lawsuit.
“From the onset, I did not want to sell the Los Angeles Clippers. I have worked for 33 years to build the Team,” Sterling said in a statement. “I believe that [NBA Commissioner] 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. … 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.”
Sterling’s about-face raises a number of questions about the situation, which we’ll try to answer by cobbling together opinions from legal experts.
1. Will Sterling be successful in his lawsuit?
The deck is stacked against him. Sterling is accusing the NBA “of breaking antitrust law, violating his constitutional rights, conversion (which means the NBA allegedly took his property away from him), and breach of contract,” per Business Insider. To succeed, Sterling must prove he suffered damages after the NBA fined him $2.5 million and banned him from the league following his taped comments about black people. This will be extremely difficult, considering the windfall Sterling will receive from the sale of the team.
“The real significant issue is, how has he been harmed, given that the sale price is $2 billion, almost four times what any other franchise has sold for,” Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, told Business Insider.
Another problem for Sterling’s lawsuit: The NBA didn’t force him to sell the team. Rather, it was his wife, Shelly, who entered into the agreement to sell the team to Ballmer after doctors found that Donald Sterling was impaired by early-onset dementia. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, Shelly Sterling felt free to move forward with the sale based upon “a provision in the trust that controlled the Clippers that stipulated that if Mr. or Mrs. Sterling was found to have a cognitive impairment, the other had a fiduciary responsibility to become sole trustee.”
Sterling would probably have a better chance had he sued his wife. “One of the questions I have is whether he sued the appropriate defendant,” Mitten told Business Insider. “It is his wife who entered into the agreement, and my question is whether she had the authority to do so.”
2. Will Donald Sterling’s lawsuit interfere with sale of the Clippers?
Again, probably not. Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann, a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, writes that “the league will prepare for Sterling to petition a court for a restraining order to temporarily block the NBA from selling the team to Ballmer,” a move that has little chance of success because, again, Sterling will be extremely challenged to prove that he has been damaged by a move that will net him hundreds of millions of dollars. McCann goes on to say that the league will continue to move forward with the sale of the team despite Sterling’s lawsuit. Plus, there’s the fact that Shelly Sterling and the Clippers trust have agreed to indemnify the league against any lawsuits brought about by her husband. In other words, even in the unlikely event that Donald Sterling’s lawsuit is successful, Shelly Sterling will pay any penalty. And because the two are still married and sharing assets, Donald Sterling essentially is suing himself.
3. So, if he has little chance of success, what does Sterling stand to gain by suing the NBA?
I’ll just let Sports Illustrated’s McCann handle this one:
Sterling’s strategy against the NBA is likely not so much to hold onto the Clippers, but to prove a point and cause the NBA damage.
Sterling’s point is undoubtedly that he should not be forced to sell a team over fundamentally private and perhaps unlawfully recorded comments. This is true even if those comments are widely considered racist and even if publication of those comments hoisted the NBA into an intense crisis with players, sponsors and various leaders. The damage Sterling could cause the NBA would be in the form of pretrial discovery. If Sterling’s lawsuit advances past the NBA’s motion to dismiss, Sterling would be able to depose fellow NBA owners and league officials, most notably Silver and former commissioner David Stern, about their knowledge of other owner misconduct and how the league responded or did not respond. At a minimum, Sterling might depict the NBA as hypocritical and perhaps even tolerant of racism and bigotry until now.
4. Is there anything Sterling could do to improve his chances in court?
Yes. As noted above, he could sue his wife, challenging her assertion that he has been mentally incapacitated by early-onset dementia. If this is successful, it could throw a legal wrench into Shelly Sterling’s plan to sell the Clippers to Ballmer because she would lack “the legal authority to act on behalf of the family trust,” McCann writes.