The NBA has punished Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver to the tune of a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension from all basketball-related activity as a result of its investigation into Sarver’s workplace conduct.
According to the probe — spurred by a November 2021 ESPN report alleging racism and misogyny within the Suns organization — Sarver used the N-word “on at least five occasions” when recounting the statements of others, and engaged in “inequitable conduct toward female employees.”
More specifically, Sarver “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 toward male employees.”
Sarver, who bought the Suns in 2004, cooperated fully with the investigation, the league said.
“The statements and conduct described in the finding of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement on Tuesday. “We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.”
But the NBA’s statement regarding its independent investigation also contradicts the findings and appears to take the long-time real estate mogul off the hook for the bad behavior that was uncovered from a probe that included interviews with 320 current or former employees.
“The investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus,” the NBA’s statement reads after an independent investigation by an outside law firm.
Instead, the report tries to portray the 60-year-old owner as something of an entitled frat boy.
“While it is difficult to identify with precision what motivated Sarver’s workplace behavior described in this report, certain patterns emerged from witness accounts: Sarver often acted aggressively in an apparent effort to provoke a reaction from his targets; Sarver’s sense of humor was sophomoric and inappropriate for the workplace; and Sarver behaved as though workplace norms and policies did not apply to him,” read the report from the New York-based investigating firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
During his suspension, Sarver will have to complete a training program focused on workplace conduct. The NBA will donate the funds from Sarver’s $10 million fine to organizations that address race and gender-based issues in the workplace.
Silver’s suspension of Sarver is his biggest punishment levied on an NBA owner since his first year as NBA commissioner in 2014 when he banned Donald Sterling for life from the NBA and fined the former Los Angeles Clippers owner $2.5 million after investigating racist comments he made on a phone call to an ex-girlfriend. Sterling told the woman, of mixed ethnicity, not to be seen with or bring Black people to Clippers games.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with Black people,” Sterling said on the recording.
Sarver’s punishment was less severe than Sterling’s given his mere one-year ban to the lifetime ban Sterling faced, but both owners were hit by the maximum allowed fine at the time under NBA bylaws.
Many, however, remain confused by the length of Sarver’s punishment. For reference, former Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans was levied a three-year suspension for violating the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Policy.
“As tough as it was to do, Robert Sarver’s racism, misogyny and more is as worse as Donald Sterling’s and very well may surpass it,” ESPN’s Marc Spears tweeted after the Sarver news broke. “How does the Suns owner get a pass to return to his throne after a year suspension and not pushed out the NBA like Sterling? Confused by this result.”
Silver, in his statement, recognized the league still has room for growth.
“I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent,” he wrote. “Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. 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.”
The Suns released a statement that stated that the organization had “for the most part … addressed in recent years” the workplace issues highlighted in the investigation.
“We are proud of the progress we’ve already made,” the Suns said.
“Robert Sarver is also taking responsibility for his actions,” the statement continued. “He recognizes that at times during his eighteen years of ownership, his conduct did not reflect his, or the Suns’ values, and was inconsistent with the advancements the management team has taken with Robert’s full support.”