NBA fails to hold Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver accountable

The NBA is letting Robert Sarver off easy, far too easy. And the league is showing that it prioritizes practicality and owner rights over accountability for gross misconduct.

10 months ago, ESPN published a bombshell report exposing the racist and misogynistic workplace environment that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has perpetuated since purchasing the NBA franchise in 2004. 

Composed of testimony from more than 70 interviews with former and current employees, the report shines a light on the troubling trends that Sarver has contributed to and allowed to grow during his nearly two-decade long tenure as owner of the Suns.

The ESPN report alleges that Sarver used racial slurs multiple times when speaking with coaches and athletes from the Suns and other NBA franchises. The report also alleges that Sarver often made lewd comments to and about women; reporting these incidents to human resources departments proved unsafe, since higher-up executives could identify those who spoke out against them.

In a 43-page report released last Tuesday, the NBA confirmed these allegations.

Yet, the punishment handed down by the NBA along with the results of its investigation was hardly a slap on the wrist: a one-year suspension and a puny $10 million fine charged to a multimillionaire. After such appalling revelations, Sarver gets to keep his team and only has to serve a quick timeout. He even gets to play a part in appointing his temporary replacement. 

When The Miscellany News covered this story last winter, we afforded NBA commissioner Adam Silver a decent amount of credit for his track record in situations similar to Sarver’s, namely forcing then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell the franchise and exiling him from the league after he was caught on tape saying the the N-word. 

But instead of banning Sarver —the seemingly obvious and morally correct course of action—the league has turned Sarver into a poster child of toeing the line of misconduct without losing their franchise, the only punishment that is true accountability.

Forcing an owner to sell their team is a public relations and legal nightmare for the NBA. Sarver, or any owner that finds themselves in a situation similar to Sterling’s, is not going to lose their franchise without litigating the hell out of the league first.

Without considering individual legal warfare, there is the fact that three-fourths of the NBA’s Board of Governors, which is composed of all 30 owners, must vote in favor of forcing the owner out, ESPN reported. These owners are colleagues, and even if there are no personal relationships, there is a keen understanding among owners that they set the standard they themselves will later be held to. Every removal of an owner only further normalizes a fate they fear greatly for themselves.

Sadly, a large amount of credit for the punishment that Donald Sterling faced is owed to the tape in which he was caught using the N-word. The tape was played on every media outlet throughout the world and thoroughly embarrassed the NBA. The tape forced the NBA’s hand. 

In Sarver’s case, there is no tape, no hot mic, no form of compelling evidence that makes his misconduct the story nobody can stop talking about and earns the NBA the spotlight it will do anything to take off of itself. In Sarver’s case, the NBA’s hand is not forced. The organization has more leeway in making its priorities, an opportunity it has regrettably not passed up.

Silver defended his prioritization of convenience, saying to ESPN, “I have certain authority by virtue of this organization, and that’s what I exercise. I don’t have the right to take away his team. I don’t want to rest on that legal point because of course there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level. But, to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver.”

When Silver says that Sarver’s actions did not rise to a certain level, he is referring to the investigation finding that Sarver was not motivated by racial animus, quite possibly the weakest justification of all in the NBA’s failure to hold Sarver accountable.

Silver has earned himself a thorough smearing of the reputation that was once strong as the commissioner who banned Donald Sterling and advocated for social justice. 

There is still time for Silver to correct the course of the NBA’s rulings while Sarver is suspended, and the pressure has been strong.

The day after the investigation results were released, NBA star LeBron James took to Twitter to express his displeasure with the ruling.

“Our league definitely got this wrong,” James wrote. “I don’t need to explain why … I said it before and I’m gonna say it again, there is no place in this league for that kind of behavior.”

Even Chris Paul, the Suns star point guard, pressured the league to do more.

“Like many others, I reviewed the report. I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read,” Paul shared on Twitter. “This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated.”

Perhaps the most influential criticism came from Suns’ minority owner, the team’s second-largest stakeholder, Jahm Najafi, when he called for Sarver’s resignation, according to ESPN. 

But the pressure before voices like Najafi or James or Paul spoke out was substantial. An extensive report detailing racism and misogyny, one that the league confirms itself, should have made this decision an easy one.

Instead, Silver and the NBA had added to the long list of accountability failures in professional sports. Something the NBA and Silver were supposed to be better than.

 

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