The letter from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's attorney to the NBA claiming no wrongdoing on Sterling's behalf is a persuasive indication he plans to fight the league in court, sports law expert Warren K. Zola says.
"It was to put the NBA on notice that they're preparing to go to battle," said Zola, an adjunct professor of business law at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. "It's clear that the attorney and, I assume, Donald Sterling do not feel any punishment is warranted. Clearly, that's a precursor to litigation."
USA TODAY Sports reported Thursday that Sterling's lawyer, Maxwell M. Blecher, told the NBA his client will not pay the $2.5 million fine and that Sterling does not warrant "any punishment at all" and said the matter will need to be adjudicated.
The letter addresses only the fine, which Sterling missed the deadline to pay, and the lifetime ban, not the league's push to terminate Sterling's ownership.
"I don't see any scenario in which he and his attorney have an ability to overturn either the ban or the league fine," Zola said. "Quite frankly, even if he doesn't pay the fine, it can be withheld from television payments as would interest from that fine."
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the fine and ban April 29, when he also said he would urge NBA owners to force a sale of the Clippers. Silver's stance came after a recording of Sterling making racist comments was made public, and the first-year commissioner received widespread praise around the NBA, including backing from all 29 other owners.
Using the NBA Constitution and By-Laws, the league thinks has a clear and unassailable case against Sterling, according to Zola. The NBA has homed in on Article 13(d), which states an owner may be terminated if the owner should "fail or refuse to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely."
Sterling also signed moral and ethical contracts as part of being an owner, and the league thinks he violated contractual obligations in the audio recording.
"The courts have a really hard time and will have a hard time overturning the internal constitution and bylaws within a private association unless those actions are arbitrary and capricious, and that doesn't it appear that is the case," Zola said.
University of Toledo law professor Geoffrey Rapp said Sterling and his attorneys also could be setting ground work to allow Sterling to have a say in the potential sale of his team.
"I still think most of the public statements by both Sterlings (Donald and wife Shelly) represent an attempt to stake out a position to have more control over the terms and price of the sale of the team," Rapp said in an e-mail. "I'll believe they want to sue only when they file a complaint."
Indeed, if Sterling is forced to sell, he likely will want the highest price for his team, which could sell for more than $1 billion.
"What will be interesting is what will happen if and when bids are submitted to the league," Zola said. "The league and its owners have clear authority to determine and approve a potential buyer. What happens if they decide to pass over a higher bid for an owner that they value?"
There is precedent in professional sports of a team being sold for less than the highest bid. The Boston Red Sox were sold in 2002 to a group that wasn't the highest bidder.