In an effort to force him to sell his share of the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA is pushing hard on Donald Sterling in the wake of racially insensitive comments he's made in recent weeks — and this week for remarks about hall of famer Magic Johnson.
But what power does the organization have over Sterling's wife, the co-owner of the team?
Shelly Sterling reasserted on the TODAY show Tuesday her contention that she is not connected to her estranged husband's statements and should be allowed to retain ownership of the team no matter what happens to him.
"I think I agree with what they (the league) had — what their decision is. I don't agree what their decision is for me. I wholly feel that I've done nothing wrong."
"It’s all going to turn on how a court or arbitrator construes the specific reasons."
She has said that she has planned to file for divorce from Donald Sterling and believes his statements may be the result of dementia.
And Shelly Sterling's lawyer went so far as to say it was a sexist move by the NBA to try to push his client out.
"The problem we have here is she's been sucked into the maelstrom and people say, you know, 'Off with her head,''' attorney Pierce O'Donnell told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie. "She had nothing to do with it. Is this because she's a woman?"
But the NBA's full-court press on the Sterlings has so far been powered by the league's constitution.
"Under the NBA constitution, if a controlling owner's interest is terminated by a three-quarter vote, all other team owners' interests are automatically terminated as well," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said earlier in a statement. "It doesn't matter whether the owners are related as is the case here. These are the rules to which all NBA owners agreed to as a condition of owning their team."
Experts say it's unlikely that Shelly will hold on to the Los Angeles team.
"This is very much an unprecedented situation, and it’s going to largely turn on the terms and intent of the (league's ownership) agreement," said Matthew Mitten, law professor and Director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
He added that even if Shelly Sterling argued in a divorce proceeding that her husband had lost his faculties and she should get his controlling interest in the Clippers, the NBA would still have to approve that transfer of ownership.
"They’re not going to go without a fight," Mitten told NBC News. "It’s all going to turn on how a court or arbitrator construes the specific reasons. Whether they find just cause."
But Mitten believes that the reasons Donald Sterling had for making his controversial statements will not be germane to the issue of whether his wife can keep the team.
"To the extent that they’re relying upon these racially discriminatory statements — if they were caused by dementia or other mental impairment, I don’t see that as being particularly relevant."
Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images file
Shelly Sterling watches the Clippers against the Golden State Warriors on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, Calif.
California-based attorney Everett Glenn, who has represented hall of fame athletes for decades and now runs the National Sports Authority, noted that even if there were a legal loophole for Shelly Sterling, the league would likely do everything in its power to keep the Sterling name out of the Clippers' owner's box.
"One could argue (her interest) is separate from his, but I think the spirit of the rule, if not the letter of the rule, would be frustrated in the opinion of the NBA if any Sterling remains as an owner," Glenn told NBC News.
"She had nothing to do with it. Is this because she's a woman?"
Glenn pointed out that all of Sterling's talk overshadows some deeper issues of race, sports and money that have lingered for years — including construction contracts and the issues of young black men not being prepared to handle the world after their professional sports careers end, or if their careers never get started after college.
"The question becomes are you concerned about what’s being said or what’s being done?" he asked.
Dick Parsons, the interim CEO hand-picked by the NBA to run the Clippers, is confident the league will succeed in forcing a sale of the team owned by Donald Sterling since 1981.
"My personal belief is the league will prevail, which means there will be an ownership change," Parsons said on Monday during a news conference at the Staples Center. "A prolonged legal battle is in no one's interest, certainly not the league's. I would hope we could avoid that."
First published May 13 2014, 12:30 PM