The NBA’S Response to the Sarver Investigation

“Sarver didn’t have his come-to-Jesus moment voluntarily. He was dragged there kicking and screaming. And he expected to find clemency there, at the spot where he exchanged his elite position for a dose of humility. But by pleading for a second chance, he was really fighting to keep his position of power. Sarver could very well mean it when he says he’s sorry, and he may make good on his pledge to emerge as a better man. Still, the forgiveness that he believes is his right does not come with the privilege of owning an NBA team.” – Candace Buckner

This week’s announcement that Robert Sarver has put the Phoenix Suns and Mercury up for sale is welcome news. The NBA and WNBA are well rid of his racism, misogyny, harassment, and abuse.

But as the third NBA owner in eight years to sell a team after racist comments were brought to light — Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers in 2014 and Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015 – the Sarver case signals a systemic problem.

Only a lifetime ban, as was imposed on Sterling, will demonstrate that the NBA truly strives to represent the values of equality, respect, and inclusion, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver declared in a statement.

While investigators reported that efforts to examine allegations of institutional racial and gender discrimination and harassment at the Suns were hampered by poor human resources record-keeping, they made it clear that they “did not undertake to re-review individual employment claims or to conduct a comprehensive review of race or gender equity at the Suns.” Such a review should be conducted – not only at the Suns but at every team.

Furthermore, Sarver’s decision to sell the teams presents an opportunity for the league to diversify team ownership. While nearly three-quarters of the NBA’s players are Black, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, is the only Black principal owner out of 30.

Sarver’s voluntary decision to sell the teams spares the league’s other owners from exercising their option to force a sale, just as they were spared from having to vote on Sterling and Levinson. But they will have to vote to approve the sale, and they can demonstrate their commitment to diversity by insisting on minority representation among the new owners.

It’s been more than 10 months since ESPN published its scathing expose of the “toxic and sometimes hostile” workplace Sarver created over his 17 years as owner. As one former Suns executive said, “There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me.”

The NBA’s investigation into Sarver’s conduct, which concluded earlier this month, found that Sarver:
* repeatedly used the N-word, even after both Black and white employees told him he should not.
* used language and engaged in conduct demeaning of female employees.
* made crude jokes and inappropriate comments about sex and anatomy.
* engaged in workplace-inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.
* bullied employees with demeaning and harsh treatment, including yelling and cursing at them.

Absurdly, the investigation found that Sarver – who is quoted in the report saying, “I hate diversity” and “Why do all the women around here cry so much?” – was not motivated in this behavior by racial or gender-based animus.

This finding reveals a disturbing lack of understanding about the very nature or racial and gender animus and the pervasive influence of both implicit and explicit bias at every level of society. To rely on an imperfect analogy, the absence of a “Keep out!” sign is not the same as a welcome mat. And that’s a problem bigger than Robert Sarver.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email