Is the NBA Above the Law?

The NBA’s handling of the Donald Sterling controversy has a definite odor to it and it’s not from sweaty socks. In April, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver decided that the NBA was above the law and thus didn’t have to obey laws that interfered in the NBA’s decisions. In its haste to get rid of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling the NBA violated a California law that prohibits use of statements made in secret private recordings as a basis of punishment for an individual.

On April 25, TMZ released a secretly made illegal recordimng of an argument between Sterling and his girl friend V. Stiviano about her male companions. A controversy developed when some claimed Sterling’s comments were racist. Four days later after what was likely only a cursory investigation, Silver imposed a fine, banned Sterling from NBA events and ordered the sale of the team.

California law explicitly bans recording a person’s voice without his knowledge. The law further states that such secret recordings cannot be used against a person in a court of law. If government cannot use such evidence to take a person’s property, how can a private business do so? Is the NBA more powerful than the State of California? Is the NBA above the law?

Our system of justice is based on the philosophy that it is more important for government to obey the law than to punish lawbreakers. If a police officer fails to advise someone he arrests of the suspect’s constitutional rights and the individual confesses to murder, the confession must be thrown out because the law requires that those who are arrested be advised of their rights.

It Sterling had confessed to murder in a secret recording, the state would not have been able to use the recording to convict him. So where does the NBA get the authority to punish him for saying something unpopular during a lovers’ quarrel? When people quarrel with people they are emotionally involved with they often say things they don’t mean and wouldn’t normally say. For example, a little girl arguing with her mother might say “I hate you” under the effect of the emotions involved in an argument.

The fine and lifetime ban imposed on Sterling by NBA commissioner Adam Silver are illegal and should be rescinded. The order to sell the team is also illegal, but the incident created such a negative public attitude to the Sterlings association with the team that Shelley Sterling had no real choice but to sell.

The negative attitude means the new owner should seriously consider moving the team and changing its name. When people develop a negative attitude to an individual or organization the negative attitude may remain long after they have forgotten why they developed the negative attitude. Many people will remember the controversial statements as coming from the “owner of the Clippers” rather than someone named Donald Sterling. These individuals may ignore the change in ownership and think the new owner made the statements.

Some have suggested that Sterling has a “plantation owner’s attitude” to the team. I suspect many sports franchise owners have some degree of this attitude and it has nothing to do with the color of the athletes on the team. For example the decision by National Football League owners to ignore a concussion problem among NFL players might indicate a “plantation owner’s attitude”.

Adam Silver’s seems to have a “Godfather’s” attitude toward those in his organization. He feels he can ignore the law when dealing with those in his organization. Our system of laws is of little value if private organizations can ignore the laws of evidence and impose whatever punishments they want to impose. The word “vigilante” is used to describe those who convict individuals and impose penalties outside the law,

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