Team owner punishments come down to business, not morals, says sports law professor

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon released a statement Tuesday following the announcement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling has been banned for life from the NBA and given the maximum fine possible for racist remarks.

Silver said Sterling has admitted his voice is on the recording.

Simon said, “I wholeheartedly endorse Commissioner Adam Silver’s swift, strong and decisive action with regard to Donald Sterling. These past days have been both sad and disturbing for the NBA family. It is our responsibility to continue as models of the diversity and inclusion the NBA has long and justly represented.”

The NBA is not forcing Sterling to sell the team, but sports law professor Gary Roberts says, “They could certainly make his life so miserable, if it’s not already so miserable, that he will want to sell.”

Roberts is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at IUPUI.

“His viability as an owner is shot and speaking of shot, it’s very similar to Marge Schott’s comments a couple of decades ago when she made comments in a private telephone conversation that happened to be recorded that were racially charged.”

Schott, the former Cincinnati Reds owner, was ultimately forced out of the game.

Deciding how a professional team owner will be punished is nothing short of complicated.

“It’s a business decision more than anything, not a moral judgment,” said Roberts.

And that’s why Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who is accused of breaking the law by driving under the influence, likely won’t face as harsh of a punishment as Sterling, whose actions were not illegal.

To be clear, Irsay has never been accused of racism and enjoys the support of his players and his league, and that is the biggest factor when deciding team owner punishment, according to Roberts.

“Irsay is not non-viable as an owner. In fact, he’s well-respected and loved by many in the Indianapolis community. He just has some personal demons that he needs to deal with. Sterling, on the other hand, has core beliefs apparently that just make him not someone who can function as an owner of an NBA team.”

“Irsay has health issues and substance abuse issues that he is taking steps to deal with, but that does not render him incapable of being the owner and managing a franchise. Donald Sterling’s opinions have made him a pariah with the public, with the sponsors that he depends on for income, with the employees and with the players who play for him.”

Roberts says Irsay has essentially suspended himself.

“So there’s no reason for the NFL to act hastily, whereas with the Sterling thing, this was the world crashing down on the NBA. They had to do something fairly quickly and so they did.”

The NFL typically does not make decisions on punishment until the legal process has played out.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has confirmed Irsay could face punishment.