Donald Sterling Wants To Air The NBA’s Dirty Laundry

There's really no better word for it than blackmail.

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

Now that Donald Sterling’s on again, off again, on again lawsuit against the NBA is on again, it appears that he intends to drag the entire league, and his fellow owners, through the mud:

(CNN) – Donald Sterling is digging into his wallet to dig into the NBA and its owners.

In his latest salvo against the league that’s moved to oust him over racist remarks, the embattled Los Angeles Clippers co-owner has hired “multiple private investigation firms” to look into alleged discriminatory conduct by fellow team owners and the NBA itself, said a person familiar with Sterling’s legal strategy.

He will give each firm a budget of $50,000 and 30 days to finish an investigation, according to this source, who is not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.

The billionaire real estate mogul bought the Clippers in 1981 for about $12 million; his estranged wife, Shelly, recently reached an agreement with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to sell the franchise for $2 billion.

After initially signaling his openness to this deal, Sterling has backed off. Not only won’t he sell the franchise — as league leaders have insisted should happen — but Sterling insists he won’t pay a $2.5 million fine or accept a lifetime ban ordered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.


The source said that the private investigators will look into discrimination cases filed by African-Americans and women targeting the NBA.

Sterling’s camp knows of at least 12 such cases of alleged discrimination dating back to 2008, about half of which involve pregnant women who filed complaints against the league office, said the source.

The investigators will also try to dig up instances where league owners made questionable remarks, including anything that would be considered sexist or racist, a source told the Associated Press. The AP described its source as a person familiar with Sterling’s legal strategy, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether this was the same person who talked to CNN.

The strategy that Sterling’s lawyers appears to be following here is pretty obvious, but I don’t see how it can possibly work. Since the league’s decision to seek to oust Sterling as an owner, which ultimately led to the sale of the team to Steve Ballmer, is based upon the racist statements that Sterling made on the tapes that became public in May, his attorneys are looking for similar incidents of racist or sexist behavior by NBA players, owners, or officials who made similar comments or engaged in discriminatory behavior but were not severely punished by the league. Then, their argument will be that the league’s decision to attempt to terminate Sterling’s franchise because of his comments should be voided because of the evidence of inconsistent treatment.

In some cases, it is true that inconsistent treatment even by a private organization can be used in effort to blunt disciplinary action of some kind or another. For example, an employee who was fired based on behavior not related to their work performance could potentially make a discrimination claim if they could show that similar conduct by other employees was either not punished, or punished far less severely. While I haven’t heard of this kind of defense being used in a this type of case, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility that Sterling’s attorneys could make the argument if they had the evidence.

However, it strikes me that there’s almost nothing that they could find that would seem to be legally sufficient to support an argument that the NBA’s efforts to enforce its own Constitution should be barred by the Court. This is because the argument they would have to make completely ignores the real reason that the NBA took the action it did against Sterling. The reason they are attempting to oust him as an owner isn’t because he made racist statements to his girlfriend, it’s because those statements became public. Once that happened, we saw how quick and negative the public reaction was. Led by Miami’s Lebron James, players started openly talking about staging a walkout is the league didn’t take action against Sterling. Sponsors started canceling their contracts with the Clippers, and were threatening to do the same thing with their contracts with the league if action wasn’t taken. And, day after day, the comments were in the news just as the league was beginning its playoffs. In the end, the NBA acted the way it did not because Sterling is a racist, but because he was causing damage to the league. It seems unlikely that you could say the same thing about anything that Sterling’s P.I.’s could uncover, and without that equivalence the arguments about unequal treatment wouldn’t hold any water.

Of course, digging up dirt like this could cause problems for the NBA even it never makes it into a courtroom. Allegations about past racist or sexist comments by players or owners that didn’t become public, and thus weren’t really punished, would at the very least embarrassing to the league and could cause problems similar to those that arose after the Sterling tapes became publish. That may be just what Sterling is aiming for. Information like this may not have much legal merit, but it could be quite valuable in forcing a settlement that includes, for example, lifting the ban on Sterling ever attending another NBA function and the $2.5 million fine assessed against him. However it turns out, though, this is shaping up to be a full-on thermonuclear legal war.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Please pass the popcorn.

  2. Pinky says:

    The strategy might not make sense as blackmail, but it makes perfect sense as revenge. Have you ever been close to a heated divorce?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Sure there a better word: revenge.

    It will be interesting to see what he comes up with. It’s amazing what people will do when there’s no one to tell them “No”.

  4. Pharoah Narim says:

    If they can dig up evidence the League conspires with referees to extend playoff series’ for ratings, influences officiating to favor stars and large market teams, and also influences Star player movement to big media market teams…..I’m hoping he’s successful.

  5. Grumpy Realist says:

    What Sterling has managed to do up to now is simply run-roughshod over anyone who gets in his way. What I can’t understand is why he thinks the power is on his side at this point. He’s not playing with a little storekeeper or an ex-employee. He’s trying thermonuclear war with a group of very very rich men, some of whom are probably connected to some really not-so-nice people. And everyone knows, you don’t pay off a blackmailer. Even if Sterling is satisfied with something like keeping his team and sitting in watching the games until he dies, the very fact that one or more owners back down mean that there IS something there. Which just encourages third parties to go look for it…

  6. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky: ‘s got it right. He doesn’t need the money, this is about revenge. Hell hath no fury like a petty tyrant shamed.

  7. rudderpedals says:

    Smells like revenge with a dash of extortion thrown in for mouth texture and flavor.

  8. Grumpy Realist says:

    And if the NBA can throw him out for racist remarks that cause advertisers to drop away, don’t they have an even better argument, now that it looks like he’s trying to destroy the NBA? It also seems that unless Sterling manages to dig up a whole lot of recordings legally, anything he claims is likely to get dismissed as disgruntled and greedy people selling stories to his investigators.

    Then there’s also the horse’s head he’s liable to find himself waking up to…

  9. James Joyner says:

    I’ve always assumed this would be his strategy. I’m guessing he’s not the only NBA owner who has made racist remarks in the privacy of his home.

  10. bill says:

    @Pharoah Narim: i know, they call that “gaining respect” but it’s known to us all as ‘favoritism”.
    how the league allows it’s top players to band together to get a ring is pretty shameless, that the spurs are peeing in the pool this year is kind of nice!

  11. Nikki says:

    Billionaire on billionaire war! Love it! Let there be blood!

  12. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Talkaboutcher First World Problems…

  13. al-Ameda says:

    Isn’t it lovely when cousins divorce?

  14. Pinky says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA: It’s only a First World problem in that the wealthiest people are settling this without private armies.

  15. DrDaveT says:

    I’d love to see him do some real damage to the NBA. I have no love lost for the other owners (although Cuban can be fun), and I suspect that there is some exceptionally fetid laundry down at the bottom of the hamper of this overgrown boys’ club locker-room.

  16. Mike says:

    You can’t have that much money and power flowing and not have some juicy nuggets. It’s like if the media one day did some real investigative journalism, just imagine what they could come up with 🙂

  17. PAUL HOOSON says:

    Scorched earth politics don’t always bear much fruit. Sterling has a background as a lawyer and had a much better shot going to court and his legal team proving that an illegally obtained recording without his permission is not admissible evidence in court and then suing the NBA and winning his case as well as keeping his team if he wanted, and just weathering out any bad feelings over time with the public, players and the NBA.