How Much Is Too Much For A Sports Franchise?

Donald Sterling may be “mentally incapacitated,’’ but in a way, we too are sick puppies. We devote an uncomfortable, disproportionate amount of attention to sports in this country, to the point a long-bedraggled basketball franchise in Los Angeles can sell for $2 billion. Have you pondered the future sales prices of more prominent sports teams when the Clippers are sold for such a preposterous sum? Have you weighed the continuing astronomical spikes in broadcast rights fees, how fans may be priced out of the sacred experience of watching their favorite teams on TV at home? Have you wondered what athletes are thinking about their own salaries about now, and what that those increases will do to ticket prices?

If America is still climbing out of a recession, sport has become the gold rush, a jet propulsion force driving the American economy like few other industries. Why do you think major media companies are financially imbedding themselves with sports leagues for 10, 20, 30 years? Those cozy romances have all but wiped out any chance of watchdog journalism of those relationships, since those media companies have bought off the more dangerous viewpoints of the commentators who work for them, not that it will stop me on this proudly independent site. And to think I gulped when Nolan Ryan became the first million-dollar-a-year player in 1980, which was only 34 years ago, a year before Sterling used his real-estate-boom money in southern California to buy the San Diego Clippers.

“You could have bought the entire city of San Diego for $2 billion in 1981,’’ comedian Adam Carolla told me.

TWO BILLION DOLLARS FOR THE L.A. CLIPPERS. What is Jerry Jones thinking? What are Hal and Hank Steinbrenner thinking? What is the Buss family thinking

Know how many homeless people could be fed with $2 billion? How many kids we could educate? What are these egomaniacal men doing spending so much money on toys? Isn’t the Porsche and the call girl enough these days?

If we can believe the unnamed sources who say it’s over for Sterling, that he has been declared mentally ill by “experts’’ and doesn’t need to approve the sale,
then you know what’s next. A party. At Staples Center. With the former Microsoft CEO and new Clippers owner, Steve Ballmer, as the star of the proceedings as a band plays, “Ding Dong The Wretch Is Dead,’’ even if Ballmer has defied common logic by spending such a staggering sum on a sports team — in particular, THIS sports team. Until recently, the Clippers were a national laughingstock, thanks to the shabby leadership of Sterling, who had been a long-running joke before becoming a pathetic figure when his now-infamous racial rant was recorded unwillingly by a gold-digging companion. Now, suddenly, because of that racial rant, Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly, can have a frantic bid competition out of her Malibu estate and declare Ballmer the winner.

Consider that has happened here. Donald Sterling is exposed as a racist, the NBA bans him for life, Shelly sells the team for $2 billion — about $1 billion more than it would have gone for before the rant — because Ballmer and other bidding parties, such as the David Geffen-Oprah Winfrey supergroup, wanted to be the 21st-century social heroes who rubbed out Sterling and embraced inclusiveness. It’s also a hoot to see your name splashed in a top-of-the-front page headline in USA Today, as Ballmer experienced Friday.

To think the Clippers are the object of the second-highest franchise purchase in American sports history — well, it makes us pause and wonder how damned valuable these ventures will be for generations to come. Consider how Ballmer plans on recouping his investment through TV money. Three years ago, we gasped when the Los Angeles Dodgers were sold for $2.3 billion, then realized it was something of a bargain when Guggenheim Partners sold TV rights to Time Warner Cable for more than $8 billion. Though the Clippers long have been a distant second to the glorified Lakers in the NBA pecking order in southern California, a massive marketplace gives Ballmer a chance to thrive anyway. In my next life, I want to own a sports team in Los Angeles.

Bet I could do a better job than Donald Sterling.

Not that Sterling is accepting all of this, not yet anyway. Predictably, he has countered the Ballmer sale with a $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA, with his attorney, Max Blecher, telling ESPN, “”The (termination) charges in the lawsuit are an invasion of his constitutional rights, violation of antitrust laws, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract.’’ Blecher said Sterling did agree to undergo neurological tests, but said medical conclusions that Sterling is “mentally incapacitated’’ were “grossly exaggerated,’’ adding, “Mr. Sterling is far from mentally incompetent.’’

Which means, to paraphrase the infamous V. Stiviano, LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

For now, a group of 29 NBA owners won’t have to participate in a potentially disturbing vote process next week in New York — the kind of Sterling circus the league doesn’t need days before what should be an epic Finals. Hours after the news of Sterling’s lawsuit, the league approved Ballmer’s bid and canceled the Board of Governors meeting. One reason the sale proceedings took on a breakneck pace was the owners’ wish not to be at that meeting. They would have had to vote on terminating Sterling’s ownership interests, and if the final tally wound up less than a unanimous 29-0, then a league with a predominant ratio of African-American players would be clouded by yet another racial controversy: Which owners supported Sterling in a vote?

Commissioner Adam Silver and the owners didn’t want that chaos. They want to move on, hand the franchise to Ballmer and see the Clippers, with Doc Rivers as head coach and basketball boss and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as the popular cornerstones, become one of the league’s sturdiest and competitive franchises. It won’t be that easy. Sterling, who also says he may sue his wife, could use his legal expertise to drag on this mess for weeks, months, hopefully not years. The NBA isn’t protected by anti-trust laws like Major League Baseball. Its lawyers will have to answer Sterling’s lawsuit, even as they celebrate golden boy Ballmer, who was rebuffed by the NBA last year in attempts to purchase the Kings and move them from Sacramento to Seattle but outbid Geffen’s group and all other recent comers to win the frenzied, madcap competition.

“I am delighted that we are selling the team to Steve, who will be a terrific owner,’’ Silver said in a statement. “We have worked for 33 years to builf the Clippers into a premier NBA franchise. I am confident that Steve will take the team to new levels of success.’’

Said Ballmer, who says he will not relocate the Clippers to Seattle: “I love basketball. And I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that the Clippers continue to win — and win big — in Los Angeles. L.A. is one of the world’s great cities — a city that embraces inclusiveness, in exactly the same way that the NBA and I embrace inclusiveness. I am confident that the Clippers will in the coming years become an even bigger part of the community.’’

Everyone is happy … except Donald Sterling. According to news reports, the trust was allowed to proceed with the Ballmer sale without a court hearing to determine if Stelring is incapacitated. You don’t need a law degree to understand why such an assumption could be a problem, because Sterling’s lawyers surely will be asking this: What gives Silver, Shelly Sterling and 29 owners the right to assume Sterling is clinically out of his mind? The concern is that he’ll keep fighting exactly for that very reason, because he IS unstable and vindictive.

Already established by a marketing research poll as America’s most disliked man, Sterling also will be the planet’s biggest fool if he doesn’t eventually take the money and scram. But he’s snubbing the $2 billion at the moment because he had his heart broken by a gold-digger and his basketball business snatched away by his longtime partners, and he prefers to launch a legal fight out of spite. As he said on his CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, billions of dollars don’t mean much to Sterling at this stage. A brawler all his life, he knows a steel-cage match with Silver and the league’s owners and lawyers could do considerable damage to all of them.

So unless Sterling changes course and approves the Ballmer deal, be wary of his presence and how ugly all of this could become. As one of his attorneys told the Los Angeles Times, “There can be no sale without Donald’s signature.’’ The only thing more pathetic than a miserable, wacky, 80-year-old man is a miserable, wacky, 80-year-old man who litigates as both a trade and a hobby. We’d like Sterling to simply sell his team and vanish from public life, yet his extensive legal background — and the accompanying dirty connections, back room scheming and strategic stalling — still could make him irrepressible. Rather than accept the Ballmer offer, Sterling prefers to spend his octogenarian hours brawling with a league he has smothered in shame. “He is going to fight to the bloody end,’’ said Blecher, per ESPN.com.

Which means Sterling would use his legal means to steamroll everyone in sight, as he has done throughout his bullying life. What happened to the Donald Sterling who wanted to make nice a few days earlier? “He was in a state of shock at first. Now he’s recovering and he’s much more feisty,’’ Blecher said.

Or unhinged.

But that is my opinion. If Sterling intends to keep fighting, Shelly will have to prove he indeed is incapcitated. How long might that take legally?

Referring to the NBA’s actions against his client as “a sham,’’ Blecher said the infamous tape that brought down Sterling — blurted in the company of his romantic interest at the time, Stiviano — was recorded without his knowledge and, thus, is illegal in California. The NBA will argue that a state law is irrelevant within its constitutional bylaws, to which Sterling has agreed in writing. You’d think the league has the legal advantage as a private enterprise concerned about its image and business model, but you also thought that Elgin Baylor, the one-time Clippers general manager, had the edge when he sued his boss for racial and age discrimination. Sterling won that case, and if he wins this one, well, I don’t want to think about the consequences.

As it is, if the Sterling name is still attached to the franchise in October, there are concerns Rivers will depart and Paul and Griffin will demand trades. And a widespread boycott threat, in play before Silver announced the lifetime ban of Sterling, would be an issue that could shut down stretches of the regular season. Blecher, who says the league’s punishment is “draconian,’’ describes victory as a foregone conclusion for his client.

“I believe what they’ve done is illegal and it will not hold up in court,” Blecher told ESPN. “I believe what they’re doing is a blatant invasion of his constitutional rights because they’re using a tape recording that he did not consent to and under California law that recording cannot be used for any purpose, for any proceeding. So if the basis of their case is illegal evidence, they don’t have much of a case. … The whole thing is a pile of garbage.”

Whether Team Sterling has a valid point in an NBA proceeding depends on the clout of the league’s lawyers. As renegade team owner Mark Cuban said after Silver’s announcement — and before he fed Sterling’s case with racist remarks of his own — the league is riding “a slippery slope’’ in believing it can rub out an owner because of opinions voiced in a private conversation. in a 32-page response to the league’s penalties released to multiple media outlets, Team Sterling says, “This was an argument by a jealous man and the woman he loved that never should have left the privacy of the living room. And while Mr. Sterling said some terrible words in the passion of the argument — as he had already publicly admitted and for which he has apologized — he has not taken a `position’ or an `action.’ ”

Though Sterling has been a past target of allegations that he is bigoted against African-Americans and Hispanics, the league, with David Stern as commissioner, never punished him at the time. It will be difficult to use those episodes against Sterling now when the league didn’t before. There also is the issue of whether Sterling, ugly as his comments were, is the victim of selective punishment. In the written response, he mentions NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who fired a homophobic slur at a referee — in public — and received a $100,000 fine while stating, in his view, that Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos “has made highly controversial comments against individuals with HIV/AIDS and generously supports anti-homosexual causes with impunity.”

This is the slippery slope. Team Sterling is asking if the NBA is “willing to set a standard that an individual can be punished for voicing a negative opinion. If so, such a standard will make short shrift of many players and coaches. It will also needlessly suppress free speech.”

Disgusted as most of us are by Sterling’s words, he makes fair legal points. Is he being picked on when other important people in the NBA have avoided league prosecution. “A jealous rant to a lover never intended to be published cannot offend the NBA rules,” the response says.

As for the league’s contention that he violated a morals clause in its written agreement with him, Sterling says in the document, “(The clause) is not meant to oversee morals and ethics in the home; it is meant to govern morals and ethics in conducting the sport of professional basketball.”

What did Stiviano supposedly write in a text to a Clippers employee when she learned Donald, as Shelly was filing a lawsuit against her that amounts to a gold-digging case, was taking away her Clippers game privileges? “LET THE GAMES BEGAN …’’ Stiviano wrote, meaning “BEGIN,’’ a threat followed by a release of the Sterling rant to TMZ.com. Well, the games continue, and they threaten to mar, if not swallow, an NBA Finals likely to involve some combination of a three-peat attempt by LeBron James and the Heat, the brilliance of Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a bid by Gregg Popovich and the Spurs for a fifth league title in 15 years.

“The state of the game is fantastic,’’ Silver said. “The best years are ahead of us.

“Kevin Durant, as our most valuable player, is what this league is all about,” Quite frankly, Mr. Sterling is not.”

Right now, Mr. Sterling is still kicking and fighting. In the aforementioned poll, he is more disliked in America than Bernie Madoff, O.J. Simpson, Justin Bieber, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Lohan and Eliot Spitzer. Let’s hope he grasps that level of disdain and eventually fades from our lives.

But what do I know about sports and life? The L.A. Clippers just sold for $2 billion.

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