Robert Sarver is rich and in a position of power, and because of that, he thought he could do and say things without consequence.
And he probably did in workplace environments unrelated to the NBA and WNBA.
But as owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, Sarver must follow workplace standards, and a 10-month investigation into Sarver’s conduct revealed that he violated common workplace standards.
“This behavior included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and behavior; and harsh treatment of employees that sometimes amounted to harassment,” the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz wrote of Sarver in a comprehensive and unflattering 36-page report.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has handled three major investigations into team ownership since taking over from David Stern in 2014, delivered a significant punishment, fining Sarver $10 million and suspending him from all Suns and Mercury activities for one year.
It is the second-most severe punishment for an NBA owner after former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban, fine and forced sale of the team.
Sarver, according to reports, had the gall to huff at the punishment. He’s lucky he didn’t get the Sterling treatment.
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‘SHAME’: Sarver sentence draws widespread criticism
What were the main findings in the report?
Sarver has used the N-word at least five times – mostly as recently as 2017. Each time, Sarver said he was just saying what someone else said, and was told by others that he couldn’t say that word even while telling what someone else said. someone otherwise said.
He “engaged in instances of unfair behavior toward female employees, made numerous sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions, engaged in inappropriate physical behavior toward male employees, according to the research.
He told a pregnant employee that she would be unable to do her job after becoming a mother and made comments about women who cry too much.
Sarver also cursed and yelled at employees and sometimes harassed workers.
Why is he not forced to sell the Suns and Mercury?
A key sentence in the report said, “the investigation does not find that Sarver’s behavior was motivated by racial or gender-based animosity.”
In the Sterling case, there was a clear racial animus, and Sterling doubled down on his comments, entrenching himself in an untenable position.
That line in the report saved Sarver from further sanctions. As a practical matter, Silver does not want to be in the business of forcing owners to sell their stake in a team even though it is within his authority to make decisions that are in the best interests of the league.
Also, owners generally don’t want to be in the position of pushing others out. They must approve of such a tactic, and it is naive to ignore their financial interests.
Don’t forget that “animus” phrase. This report was written by lawyers for lawyers. Lacking more conclusive evidence that Sarver acted with intent (evidence that included evidence of Sarver emailing pornography to a small group of male executives) and without Sarver’s lame excuses, the NBA chose not to pursue a larger penalty. But you are not wrong if you thought that the punishment was too mild.
What was Silver’s reaction?
The commissioner was not happy. “The statements and behavior described in the findings of the independent investigation are disturbing and disappointing,” he said in a statement, concluding, “On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all those affected by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.”
Silver gains a significant amount in his role in part for situations like this. He works for the owners and is charged with keeping 30 NBA teams on the same page when there isn’t always universal agreement on league matters. Part of that duty is protecting the league, its owners and their investment.
How did the Suns react, Sarver?
Suns Legacy Partners, the LLC that manages and operates the Suns and Mercury, said in a statement that it is committed to “creating a safe, respectful and inclusive work environment that is free of discrimination.”
The NBA ordered the Suns to take specific measures to improve workplace culture and update the league with regular reports “related to steps taken by the organization to address these demands.”
Sarver released a statement that included this line: “Although I disagree with some of the details of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees.”
He added: “I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate an ability to learn and grow as we continue to build a work culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”
That contrasts with Sarver’s November statement after ESPN’s initial expose on Sarver, who said the n-word was not part of his vocabulary. “At this point,” he said at the time, “I would absolutely welcome an impartial NBA investigation that may prove to be our only outlet to clear my name and the reputation of an organization that I am very proud of.”
Where does the good money go?
The NBA will donate the money “to organizations that are committed to addressing racial and gender issues in and outside the workplace.” The league did the same thing when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined the same amount after an investigation into the Mavs’ dysfunctional workplace culture.
What next for Sarver?
Sarver’s one-year ban means he can have nothing to do with the teams and that includes participating in games or practices; visiting any NBA or WNBA team facility; representing the Suns or Mercury publicly or privately; no involvement with business or basketball operations of the Suns or Mercury; and no involvement “in the business, administration or activities of either the NBA or WNBA, including attending or taking part in meetings of the board of directors of either league.”
Sarver, 60, must also complete a training program focused on respect and appropriate workplace behavior.
Is that enough for Sarver to sell his part of the team? Sarver, and others, bought the Suns for $401 million in 2004 and it quadrupled in value according to Forbes, which said in 2021 the Suns were valued at $1.8 billion. Last year, USA TODAY Sports learned that Sarver owned about 35% of the Suns, and co-owner Jahm Najafi is the second largest investor.
The behind-the-scenes dynamics of team ownership will be interesting to watch unfold in Phoenix.