Alleged racist comments attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have led to widespread criticism by those in the sports law community.
In an interview with InsideCounsel magazine on Monday, veteran sports law professional Robert Wallace said the comments attributed to Sterling are “inappropriate” “out of place” and “fairly disgusting.”
The comments were released in a recording provided by TMZ and likely need to be authenticated.
While there was some media speculation that a legal response may follow from Sterling’s comments, Wallace suspects the issues generated by the comments will be handled internally by the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, will likely handle the matter under the league’s bylaws on internal discipline, which likely outline ways for the team owners to take appropriate steps.
“The commissioner will take some action, I believe shortly,” Wallace said. Long-term, the league will likely involve its Board of Governors in coming up with a solution.
“An owner is not going to be able to make these kinds of statements without some consequences,” Wallace said.
Wallace has a lot of background in sports law. Currently, he is chairman of Thompson Coburn’s sports law practice, and he is the past president of the national Sports Lawyers Association. He has represented pro teams, players, coaches and executives – and previously worked for the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Football Cardinals, and spent 16 years with the Rams, where he was the team's executive vice president and general counsel. He also taught sports law at both Washington University School of Law and Saint Louis University School of Law.
Because the president of the players association, Chris Paul, is on the Clippers, it is likely he is involved with some “discussions” now underway with the NBA, Wallace said.
After all, the NBA would not want to make a decision only to have the National Basketball Players Association later to say it is an “inadequate decision,” Wallace said. “I’m sure a lot of conversation is going on.”
As far as the players on the Clippers, it is possible they could claim discrimination and could bring a hostile work environment claim, but it is not clear if such a move will be taken. Such a step could be taken, for instance, if a player wanted to void a contract. There is no word that any of the players want to do that.
Wallace said if such a step were to be undertaken, it would likely be handled through the grievance procedure under the players’ collective bargaining agreements.
This weekend, Clippers players staged a silent protest, before a playoff game in response to the comments. They removed warm-up shirts that featured team logos and then wore T-shirts worn inside out, with the logos hidden, CNN reported. Among the comments made in response to Sterling, Earvin “Magic” Johnson said that Sterling should step down as the team’s owner. In addition, LeBron James was quoted by the news media, "There's no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA — there is no room for him."
The National Basketball Players Association wants Sterling to be barred from all playoff games this season; players want “an accounting of past accusations of racism against Sterling; an explanation of what kind of discipline might be issued; assurance that the league commissioner will work with the association; and assurance the investigation will be conducted swiftly,” CNN reported.
In a statement this weekend, Paul said, “On behalf of the National Basketball Players Association, this is a very serious issue which we will address aggressively.”
Sterling is a graduate of Southwestern University School of Law, and later practiced divorce and personal injury law.