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Legal precedent supports NBA's decision on Donald Sterling, Emory professor says

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Current Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is not allowing the sale of the team and is moving forward with a $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA. He’s claiming the $2.5 million fine, lifetime ban, and forced sale of the team is a breach of contract and violation of antitrust laws. Emory University sports law adjunct professor Melissa Linsky says there is a history of commissioner authority issues in sports that stand in commissioner Adam Silver’s favor.

“In the early 1970s, movie producer Irving Levin sued the NBA for violation of antitrust laws when the NBA owners voted against his purchase of the Boston Celtics,” says Linsky, author of “The Little Book of Basketball Law.” “In this case, the court found in favor of the NBA because Levin wanted to join the NBA owners and not compete against them.”

In a separate case involving Donald Sterling, a few years after he bought the San Diego Clippers he wanted to move them from San Diego to Los Angeles, which had to be approved by the NBA owners, she says. Sterling challenged the rule, and the courts found the NBA’s evaluation of such a move did not violate antitrust laws.  

“Likewise, as the current case moves forward, the concept that the other members may use the NBA constitution to evaluate Sterling’s ownership and vote for termination may be reviewed under the same standard of review as Sterling’s move from San Diego to Los Angeles,” Linsky says.

Other situations, such as David Stern’s veto of the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade for “basketball reasons” and his player suspensions following the “malice in the palace” fight, also give credence to the NBA Constitution as a source of authority for the league commissioner, Linsky says.

The issue of commissioner authority has come up numerous times in other sports as well, which will give the courts an additional frame of reference.

“The preeminent case of commissioner authority comes from Major League Baseball in Finley v. Kuhn,” she says. In this case, then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn vetoed a trade “for baseball reasons” that would have sent players from the Oakland Athletics to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. “The court ultimately held that it would only disregard the Commissioner’s decision if it violated or was outside the rules of the league or where the decision was arbitrary or capricious,” Linsky explains. The court dismissed the case.

There are instances where a court has found the commissioner’s decision was outside of his authority, as well, she says. “Generally, though, the courts will defer to the commissioner and league authority provided it is not outside the governing documents or appear as arbitrary.”

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