A small measure of justice finally caught up with Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. The NBA on Tuesday fined Sarver $10 million and suspended him from those leagues for a year after a probe conducted by a New York-based law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, determined Sarver was guilty of racist and sexist workplace conduct.
Unlike, say, the NFL, the NBA does a fairly good job disciplining its owners.
The NBA launched its investigation after a 2021 ESPN story reported Sarver’s workplace misbehavior included his using racist and misogynist language. The NBA's investigation concluded that Sarver was guilty of racist and sexist misconduct.
Unlike, say, the NFL, the NBA does a fairly good job disciplining its owners. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement Tuesday that said, “Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior.”
Sarver offered an apology Tuesday. "Good leadership requires accountability. For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that begins with me," he said in a statement. "While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees. I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values."
He said the Suns and Mercury organizations value diversity and inclusion.
The NBA is correct to punish Sarver, but we shouldn't applaud the punishment without asking if a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine — for a man believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars — is enough. The same league nearly a decade ago forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after his racist remarks were caught on tape. (Granted, Sterling’s expulsion came after Clippers and Warriors players threatened to boycott their next playoff game.) The investigation into Sarver found that he had said the N-word on at least five occasions when recounting what others had said.
“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” Silver said in his statement. “We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.”
Silver also said: “On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators' report. We must do better."
Dan Snyder, franchise owner of the Washington Commanders, has been embroiled in a maelstrom of controversy around his oversight of an allegedly sexist and harassment-filled workplace.
It is to the NBA’s credit that the league actually disciplines those in the ownership fraternity. In other leagues, the commissioner is not necessarily someone who stands above the sport and looks out for the best interests of the league, but often someone who looks out for the best interests of the ownership. Such commissioners are flak-catchers, human meat shields protecting the owners from the press.
Think about the National Football League and its collection of Owners Gone Wild. Think about how in times of crisis, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will furrow his brow and get pelted by the media but do little else. He is paid $64 million a year to do as he is told and take the heat.
In 2014, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was booked on misdemeanor counts of impaired driving. He later pleaded guilty to one count of driving while intoxicated and told a judge he'd been under the influence of oxycodone and hydrocodone when he was arrested. Goodell had been suspending players left and right for misconduct, but Irsay’s six-game suspension came only after significant pressure was put on Goodell for him to be consistent.
Dan Snyder, franchise owner of the Washington Commanders, has been embroiled in a maelstrom of controversy around his oversight of an allegedly sexist and harassment-filled workplace that has even attracted the attention of Congress. He's been fined, but Snyder’s real “punishment” was his handing over day-to-day operations of the franchise — to his wife, Tanya Snyder.
At most, Goodell offers public relations punishment from a league that is structured in a vertical, authoritarian fashion, with the franchise owners all staring atop Goodell and occasionally expectorating on his head.
While it appears to be true that Silver has a moral compass that Goodell lacks, the disparity between the NBA forcing Sterling to sell and giving Sarver a year’s suspension can’t be ignored. Sterling’s racist remarks were caught on tape. Perhaps that is the difference: Recorded offenses always spark more outrage than ones that are testified to. But why should Sarver be allowed to return to the NBA and WNBA?
The disparity between the NBA forcing Sterling to sell and giving Sarver a year’s suspension can’t be ignored.
Like Sterling, no one should be surprised that Sarver is being outed as this kind of person. For the 18 years Sarver has owned the teams, I’ve been hearing other people in the sports and sports media world talk about Sarver’s awfulness. It should not have taken ESPN to force the league’s hand, just as it should not have taken a leaked tape for the league to finally rid itself of Sterling.
These leagues are built upon Black talent, Black minds and Black bodies. How is Sarver supposed to come back and act as an authority figure? The NBA and Silver are loath to look like they are forcing an owner to sell their franchise. But if the owner of a fast-food franchise were found to be treating their workers this way, would it be tolerated by corporate headquarters? In the same way, Sarver should no longer be tolerated by the NBA. Credit to Silver for doing something. But he should have done more than slap Sarver on the wrist.