By Ian Walker – Thompson Rivers University JD Student
On November 16, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling lost his appeal to regain the team after his estranged wife sold it for $2 billion after he was banned from the NBA for life. The ban was part of a league-imposed penalty for racist remarks Sterling made to his girlfriend. The penalty also included a $2.5 million fine, the largest fine allowed under the NBA rules, and a threat from the league to seize and auction the team.
Sterling’s wife, Shelly, took control of the family trust that owned the team and sold it to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Sterling sued his wife to block the sale, but a Los Angeles Superior Court ruled against him and approved the sale last summer. This recent appeal found that Shelly Sterling properly removed her husband from the trust, as she relied on the opinions of two doctors who found Sterling had signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
The court found that the sale to Ballmer prevented the trust from an “extraordinary loss”. The decision also relied on the fact that before Sterling refused to sign off on the sale, he had congratulated his wife on the price she had negotiated, which was $400 million higher than the next best offer. The appeal court held that Sterling failed to prove the lower court, in approving of the sale, made any legal errors.
This appeal decision appears to bring the Donald Sterling saga to an end. However, Sterling still has lawsuits pending against his wife, the doctors who examined him for Alzheimer’s disease, and the NBA. So while the sale of the Clippers appears to be final, this is likely not the last we will hear from Sterling. The case, however, has been interesting to follow for a number of reasons, and it involves many important issues and concerns surrounding professional sports.
The incident that led to Sterling’s forced departure from the NBA took place in private and away from the media. His comments were secretly recorded and were never meant to be public. This raises important privacy issues. When the news first broke, many commenters were surprised by the severe punishment for such a private act, despite the content of Sterling’s remarks.
The league justified its actions by charging Sterling with damaging the league and its teams by his remarks. The incident also appeared to be a kind of final straw, as Sterling’s unsavory behavior had a long history. Because of that history, few people felt sorry for Sterling. And yet, as uncomfortable as it may have been to think so, the penalty still struck many people as particularly severe.
The incident took place shortly after Adam Silver’s term as NBA commissioner began. Many people applauded Silver’s swift and strong actions. They were a stark contrast to Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, who had known of Sterling’s volatile behavior in the past and did little to deal with it. But Silver’s dealing with Sterling, and the severe punishment he imposed, serves as a strong reminder of the extensive influence and powers of professional sports league commissioners in today’s sports climate.
The loss of this appeal seems to have spelled the official end of Donald Sterling’s days with the NBA, and he would be hard pressed to find anyone who feels sorry for him or who will miss him. But this appears to be a case of the ends justifying the means. Everyone is glad he is gone, but there lingers for many an uncomfortable feeling that even though he may be despicable and what he said was despicable, his punishment seems severe for comments made entirely in private. There also seems to be a self-contradictory sentiment that Adam Silver’s swift use of his extensive commissioner power was quite harsh, and yet, should be applauded.