Investigation Reveals Troubling Franchise Culture, NBA Accountability Realities

[TW: This article mentions racist and sexist language]

On Nov. 4, ESPN published an extensive report exposing the racist and misogynistic workplace environment that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has perpetuated since purchasing the NBA franchise in 2004. 

More than 70 interviews with former and current employees detail repeated inappropriate actions that comprise the troubling trends which have formed during his 17 years as owner of the Suns. 

The piece alleges that Sarver used racial slurs multiple times in varying scenarios when dealing with coaches and athletes from both the Suns and other franchises. It also alleges that Sarver made lewd comments about women. Reporting these incidents to the respective human resources departments proved unsafe, since higher-up executives could identify those who spoke out against them.

A current Suns business-operations employee who was quoted in the ESPN story put it best: “[I]f the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f— is going on in Phoenix, [he] would be appalled.” In 2014, after only two months as commissioner, Silver adeptly handled the scandal of former Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling being caught on tape using the N-word by fining him $2.5 million, banning him for life from the NBA and forcing him to sell the Clippers.

Sarver’s case might appear rather straightforward and similar to Sterling’s. And Silver’s handling of the Sterling scandal might seem like an encouraging precedent. But it is no guarantee that Sarver will receive the same punishment and end up banned for life from the NBA like Sterling was.

I do not intend to suggest that Silver is choosing to excuse this behavior; I believe that his history earns him the benefit of believing that he is appalled by what the ESPN investigation details, but Silver’s personal convictions do not have the authority to make decisions in this situation. It is important to note that three-fourths of the NBA’s Board of Governors, which is composed of all 30 owners, must vote in favor of forcing Sarver to sell the team. Essentially, the owners have the power to establish the code of conduct for their organization. Owners are well aware that anything they punish Sarver for, is then something the league could hold them accountable for in the future. And while only the owners themselves know what skeletons they have hidden in their closets, it would be naive to not expect at least a few franchises to have culture problems similar to the Suns’. 

When Sterling’s issues arose, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called forcing Sterling to sell his team “a slippery slope” precisely because of the precedent the league could be setting by forcing the sale of the team. Four years later, a Sports Illustrated investigation detailed the Mavericks’ workplace as a corrosive and hostile one in which sexual harassment and domestic violence were present. Basically, Cuban loudly said what the rest of the NBA’s owners thought quietly, and the 2018 scandal revealed exactly why. 

Despite the Sports Illustrated investigation’s revelations, Cuban is still not only the owner of the Mavericks but one of the most prominent and well-liked owners in all of American professional sports. Such a reality should seriously temper expectations for what actions the NBA and its owners will take to hold Sarver accountable. 

In addition, Cuban is an outspoken and often controversial public figure unlike Sarver, who most NBA fans outside of Phoenix had likely never heard of before the ESPN investigation. Cuban’s popularity might have helped him weather the scandal, but it also certainly worked against him, as many of his adversaries were presented with an excellent opportunity to defeat him. If an owner with as many enemies and critics as Cuban can survive a workplace environment and conduct scandal, it is fair to reason that a much quieter figure like Sarver will too.

The reality that a recording proving the accusations made against Sarver or any of the unnamed executives mentioned in the ESPN article has yet to surface works against any hope that Sarver might be held sufficiently accountable. Sterling was likely held accountable to the extent that he was because every NBA fan had access to a recording of him using slurs. Regrettably, the reach and power of a short video that all sports media platforms can play incessantly is much greater than that of an extensive investigative article.

While one can hope that the NBA will believe testimony from over 70 employees over denials from a man who has everything to lose if he does anything but issue them, reality shows that it should, unfortunately, not be the expectation. But that does not change the fact that Sarver should receive at minimum the same punishments that Sterling did as soon as the NBA finds the same information that ESPN did. I would even argue that the punishments should be greater, as the article alleges Sarver’s offenses to have been consistent over the course of many years, and he appears to be the creator and leader of a cruel, toxic culture. The NBA cannot, and I truly hope they do not, excuse the behavior that Sarver exhibited and the conduct he allowed for nearly two decades along with all the unjust suffering it caused. 

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