If Donald Sterling's fate was determined by the court of public opinion, he would have already been ousted as owner of the Clippers. Commissioner Adam Silver, along with a majority of NBA players and fans, would love for that to be the case.
In reality, Sterling's future lies in the hands of the other NBA owners and, perhaps, the courts. And while Sterling has done nothing to soften the moral case against him in the weeks since audio tapes of him making racist remarks were leaked, experts agree that he still has a moderate-to-strong legal argument that will allow him to fight for control of the Clippers.
The first step in removing Sterling will be to have him voted out of his position by a supermajority (22 of 29) of his fellow owners. That's a tall order, and Dallas owner Mark Cuban has already called the idea of a forced sale a "very, very slippery slope." While owners like Leslie Alexander (Houston Rockets) and Vivek Ranadive (Sacramento Kings) have strongly hinted that they'll vote to oust Sterling, all he needs is eight owners to side with him.
Making that matter more complicated, writes Michael McCann in Sports Illustrated, is the fact that Sterling may have some sort of cognitive impairment. Sterling's bizarre comments to CNN's Anderson Cooper led many to question his judgment, and his wife, Shelly Sterling, said she thinks he is suffering from dementia. McCann wonders whether owners would change their opinion if they knew Sterling was not entirely healthy.
"[W]ould some owners feel uncomfortable ousting an elderly owner whose mind may not be what it was? Would they feel even more unease if Sterling is diagnosed by a physician with an actual cognitive impairment?"
But the difficulty in ousting Sterling hardly ends with the owners' vote. Suppose the league does get the supermajority that it desires. In that case, Sterling, an accomplished lawyer, may mount a forceful legal case.
The NBA has signaled that it will argue that Sterling violated Article 13(d) of the NBA Constitution, which states that an owner can lose control of the team if he or she fails or refuses to "fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely." The NBA would have to prove that Sterling's conduct damaged the league and/or that he acted unethically.
This is unchartered waters for any professional league, and it's unclear how and if the NBA could make a case against Sterling damaging its reputation by making comments in the privacy of his home. CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos, for one, is skeptical.
"Sure, there are catch-all provisions of the NBA's rules that ostensibly allow for ouster of an owner who brings harm to the league, but the ouster rules on the whole appear designed for dealing with teams and owners suffering economic or management problems, like failing to make payroll -- not for owners who were private bigots."
Here again, Sterling's lawyers could employ arguments which demonstrate that Sterling's cognition is impaired.
Further complicating the case against Sterling is the fact that he is not technically the lone owner of the team. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the Clippers are controlled by the Sterling Trust, which includes Sterling's wife, Shelly. If she does own half of the trust, and if she does file for divorce (as she says she will), it could make for a tricky situation for the NBA and prolong the court battle.
As this mess drags on, players and fans will likely lose patience. Roger Mason Jr., vice president of the NBA Players Association, has said that LeBron James, along with other players, could boycott the 2014-2015 season if Sterling is still in charge of the Clippers (although Mason later backtracked on those statements). If Sterling is voted out by the owners and decides to take the case to court, it is highly unlikely that it would be resolved by the beginning of next season.
At this point, the plethora of unknown factors makes it impossible to predict or even try to guess what will happen with Sterling. What we do know is that we are in for a prizefight the likes of which we've never seen in the history of professional sports.