NBA Weighs Penalties After Sterling's Alleged Race Remarks Surface

Controversy is swirling around racist comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The NBA is exploring its potential responses as it investigates the allegations.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. The NBA is investigating a recording in which the owner of the LA Clippers allegedly makes several racist remarks. An announcement about the situation with Donald Sterling is expected tomorrow. Several players are calling for his removal from the NBA. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the league's options.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Whatever the options are - a fine, a suspension, even kicking Donald Sterling out of the league - it's a baptism by fire for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He is faced with what seems to be, at first, an extremely awkward situation. Silver works for the league's 30 owners, and now is being called upon to sanction one of his bosses.

MICHAEL MCCANN: The league constitution gives the commissioner a best-interest-of-the-game policy, where the commissioner has discretion to punish owners.

GOLDMAN: And sports law expert Michael McCann says Donald Sterling can't fight it.

MCCANN: By buying an NBA team, in the franchise agreement, an owner agrees to follow the NBA's constitution - meaning the owner assents to the commissioner's authority.

GOLDMAN: But Sterling can fight the most draconian punishment.

MCCANN: The NBA's options for essentially kicking him out of the league are likely those that would lead to him suing the NBA under antitrust law, under breach of contract. So I think it's unlikely that the NBA will try to expel him.

GOLDMAN: More likely, a fine - although, really, what impact will, say, 500,000 or even a million-dollar fine have on a man who's reportedly worth 1.9 billion? Leaving a suspension as the probable outcome. Essentially, Sterling would be excommunicated from his franchise. He wouldn't be able to have contact with Clippers employees; he wouldn't be able to go to the team's facilities. Long term, McCann thinks the NBA might encourage Sterling to sell the Clippers, a certain windfall considering the team reportedly is valued in excess of $700 million. He bought it for 12 and a half million. But before any possible sanction, the NBA has to closely examine what sparked the firestorm - the audiotape, released by celebrity news website TMZ, of a private conversation allegedly between Sterling and his girlfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOTAPE)

DONALD STERLING: If you don't feel...don't come to my games, don't bring black people and don't come.

V. STIVIANO: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?

STERLING: You just...do I know? I support them, and give them food and clothes and cars and houses...

GOLDMAN: The NBA has to move carefully here on a number of fronts: it has to confirm it's Sterling on the tape, that the tape hasn't been altered, and the league has to consider where the tape was made. Again, Michael McCann.

MCCANN: Under California law, both people in a conversation - or multiple people, if there are multiple people involved - have to consent to the recording. If the recording, if the conversation had an expectation of privacy, then the recording itself is illegal.

GOLDMAN: McCann, who heads the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, says that doesn't mean the NBA can't use the tape to punish Sterling, but it could be an issue if the case ends up in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And just a few moments ago upon entering the court for pregame warm-ups, the unified statement from the Clipper players - wearing their warm-up shirts inside out so the word "Clippers" - are not across their chests.

GOLDMAN: That protest, as heard on ESPN, symbolized how the Sterling scandal overwhelmed the NBA during its weekend of playoff games. Now the question, perhaps answered tomorrow, is what action might the NBA take. Another question is emerging as well. Sterling has faced accusations of racism before, accusations he's denied. In 2009, he settled a Justice Department lawsuit over housing discrimination, for millions. But some believe it's a fair question to ask the NBA, why didn't the league confront one of its most controversial and longest-serving owners sooner?

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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