Robert Sarver is wealthy 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 not related to the NBA and WNBA.
But as owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, Sarver must follow workplace norms, and a 10-month investigation into Sarver’s conduct revealed that he violated common workplace standards.
“This conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying,” the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz wrote of Sarver in a comprehensive and unflattering 36-page report.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has dealt with three serious investigations into team ownership since taking over for David Stern in 2014, delivered a significant penalty, fining Sarver $10 million and suspending him from all Suns and Mercury activities for one year.
It is the second-harshest penalty for an NBA owner following 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 bristle at the punishment. He’s lucky he didn’t receive the Sterling treatment.
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‘SHOULD BE ASHAMED’: Sarver punishment draws widespread criticism
What were the key findings in the report?
Sarver used the N-word on at least five occasions – mostly recently in 2017. Each time, Sarver said he was just saying what someone else said, and he was told by others that he can’t say that word even in recounting what someone otherwise said.
He “engaged in instances of inequitable conduct towards female employees, made many 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 conduct towards male employees, according to the investigation.
He told a pregnant employee she would be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother and made comments about women crying too much.
Sarver also cursed and yelled at employees and on occasion bullied workers.
Why isn’t he being forced to sell the Suns and Mercury?
A key phrase in the report said, “the investigation makes no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
In the Sterling case, there was 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. On 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 in his authority to make decisions that are in the best interests of the league.
Also, owners in general don’t want to be in the position of pushing others out. They have to approve such a tactic, and it’s naive to ignore their financial interests.
Don’t forget that “animus” phrase. That report was written by lawyers for lawyers. Short of more conclusive evidence that Sarver acted with intent (evidence that included proof of Sarver emailing pornography to a small group of male executives) and without Sarver’s lame excuses, the NBA opted not to pursue a larger penalty. But you’re not wrong if you thought the punishment was too lenient.
What was Silver’s reaction?
The commissioner was not happy. “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” he said in a statement, concluding, “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.”
Silver earns 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, Sarver react?
Suns Legacy Partners, the LLC that manages and operates the Suns and Mercury, said in a statement it is committed to “creating a safe, respectful and inclusive work environment that is free from discrimination.”
The NBA mandated the Suns take specific measures to improve workplace culture and update the league with regular reports “related to steps taken by the organization to address these requirements.”
Sarver released a statement that included this line: “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.”
He added: “I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”
That contrasts with Sarver’s November statement following ESPN’s initial expose on Sarver who said the n-word isn’t part of his vocabulary. “At this point,” he said then, “I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”
Where does the fine money go?
The NBA will donate the money “to organizations that are committed to addressing race and gender-based 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 attending 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, governance, or activities of either the NBA or WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of either league’s board.”
Sarver, 60, must also complete a training program focused on respect and appropriate workplace conduct.
Is that enough for Sarver to sell his share of the team? Sarver, and others, purchased the Suns for $401 million in 2004 and it has 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.