There is huge and very good news today in the Donald Sterling situation. Donald has agreed to allow his estranged wife Shelly, who already owns half of the team, to negotiate a sale. This development could bring a quick and relatively painless end to the team's ownership turmoil.
But hang on a minute. What does it really mean? I'm not sure anyone quite knows on that question.
If the reports are accurate, it is almost certainly good news on at least one front: it seems to indicate that Donald Sterling has realized that litigation is not the answer. A lawsuit would cost him money, make him even more hated than he already is, and would accomplish nothing since he'd eventually lose (in all likelihood -- more on that below). Sterling stands to profit many hundreds of millions of dollars from any sale, even after splitting those profits with Shelly and the governments of the United States and the state of California. He's 80 years old. A hopeless lawsuit, when he's looking at a massive windfall by simply walking away, makes absolutely no sense at his age. However, DTS has never before shown much interest in doing things that make sense or at being the least bit self-aware. Amazingly in this case, he seems to have gotten there.
If Shelly Sterling is simply playing intermediary, giving the league and Donald an amicable way out of this situation, then good for her. As much as the league seemed resolved to force Sterling to sell the team through official actions by the ownership group, they would infinitely prefer if he just went away on his own. They could find some solid footing on that slippery slope that Mark Cuban has been opining about if this never actually comes to a vote. They talk tough, Sterling blinks, the team gets sold -- and the other owners never actually have to vote out one of their own, which will make all 29 of them breathe a sigh of relief in the end.
Sterling's situation is often compared to that of former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, but the fact is that MLB did not force her to sell the team in the end. They suspended her (twice, with a third one on the way) and her limited partners with the Reds were likely going to vote her out as general partner -- and in the end the pressure forced her to sell her stake in the team on her own. If Sterling winds up selling without further action from the league, it will indeed be very much like what happened to Marge Schott.
So for Sterling, it's the quickest way out of his current situation. For the league, it rescues them from the unprecedented step of turning on one of their own. What's in it for Shelly?
Certainly it can also be a bit less painful if it happens quickly and amicably, and that's good. But the idea of her "controlling the sale" as has been reported in several outlets is misleading. She certainly won't be allowed to sell the team to whomever she chooses -- it's not as if the Maloofs were allowed to sell to Chris Hansen. This transaction will shatter all previous franchise sale price records, there will be many interested parties, and the league will be actively involved in approving the new ownership group -- more so than with any prior sale because of the visibility. The priorities of Shelly Sterling and the league are aligned on at least one front -- they'd both like to sell to the highest bidder, all other things being equal. But there will be other considerations -- for instance, the league would no doubt want to use this sale to increase the diversity of their ownership group, whereas that may or may not be a factor for Shelly.
Furthermore, Sam Amick reports in USA Today that Shelly Sterling would like to retain some stake in the team. If that is her price for negotiating this solution, it remains to be seen whether the league will agree to it. There is a cloud associated with the name Sterling, and the players have said they do not want her to be involved. Would a minority stake -- something where she gets to say that she owns part of the Clippers and she gets to go to games -- be acceptable to the league? Would it be acceptable to the players?
The league has set a hearing on their actions against Donald Sterling for June 3. At a press conference on Tuesday, Adam Silver indicated the league's openness to allowing the Sterlings to sell the team on their own: "Mr. Sterling still owns the Los Angeles Clippers. Mrs. Sterling as I understand it through a trust owns 50% of the team, as well. It is their team to sell, and so he knows what the league's point of view is, and so I'm sure if he wanted to sell the team on some reasonable timetable, I'd prefer he sell it than we go through this process. ... I'm open to that."
That doesn't mean the sale would take place before June 3rd, but rather that the hearing would probably be postponed to allow for a timetable by which the team could be sold.
So there's no question that this is good news. It's a very strong indication that Donald Sterling has accepted his fate and is going to relinquish control of the Clippers without a fight -- and that's great news. It gives the NBA an exit strategy short of the "nuclear option" of forcing a sale -- which doesn't matter much to you or me, but will make them very happy and will probably expedite the process. As for Shelly, if she's facilitating this solution out of the goodness of her heart, I could see her being a respected and admired presence at STAPLES Center for many years. If she's doing it to retain some ownership stake -- she might be overreaching.
A word on the legal situation, which now seems to be defusing. The fact that Donald is backing off his saber-rattling lawsuit talk is probably an indication that he thinks he would lose any lawsuit. And most people agree.
I spoke with Maureen Weston, a Sports Law expert at Pepperdine University Law School, and she tends to agree that the league would prevail in court. But we also discussed the fact that courts love precedents -- and there really isn't much of a precedent here. Sports leagues have forced owners to sell their franchises based on financial insolvency, but no one -- not even Marge Schott, who owned a Nazi armband and frequently used the N word -- has ever been forced to sell for being a bad person. The absence of precedent in this case would be a wild card in any lawsuit that wound up before a judge. Yes, there's a solid case that Sterling caused material damage to the league based on the flight of the sponsors alone -- but strange things happen when cases go before judges.
The NBA commissioner's office has almost unlimited power in matters related to the league. I've often wondered what would happen if those powers were challenged in court. If the players had sued over the imposition of a dress code for instance, or a player or coach had refused to pay a fine or serve a suspension (punishments that are doled out in a manner that is beyond arbitrary). But there's not enough incentive to fight those actions and in the end the NBA is an incredibly successful enterprise that is benefiting all involved, so no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them and the commissioner is allowed to act imperiously.
In this case, new Commissioner Adam Silver wielded his considerable power decisively, and with these latest developments, it appears that the league is going to get the outcome they want more quickly than anyone had anticipated.