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  • Sports organisations don’t have to follow rules of evidence when considering sanctions
  • Contracts should include well drafted disrepute clauses

Less than three months into his tenure, new National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver made global headlines by imposing a lifetime ban and USD$2.5 million fine on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after a racially offensive remark made in private.

Sterling’s conversation was illegally recorded before being leaked to the media and published online. Silver also promised to encourage the NBA Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell his team. However, before Sterling’s fellow owners were forced to vote on that matter, Sterling’s wife, acting on behalf of a family trust, reached an agreement with former Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, to sell the Clippers franchise for USD$2 billion.

Sterling’s racially offensive comments were publicly condemned by current and former players, other owners and NBA affiliates. Sterling himself admitted in a CNN interview that his comments brought shame to himself, the Clippers and the NBA. There were reports Clippers players threatened to boycott playoff games and had discussed requesting the NBA void their contracts for next season. ESPN reported many Clippers’ sponsors terminated multimillion-dollar arrangements including two major sponsors who use the team’s star players as spokesmen for products and services.

It is easy to accept that once unbecoming off-field conduct becomes public knowledge, it has the potential to adversely impact the reputation, and financial interests, of teams and sporting organisations. As sports law expert Patrick George expressed in the ANZSLA Journal (2009), “it is the continued association of the sportsman with the sport or the team that is likely to produce the damaging effect on reputation of the sport or sporting body”. In these circumstances, sports administrators and teams will naturally seek to minimise the damage by sanctioning undesirable conduct (including termination of contracts, lengthy bans and fines).

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