NBA Sarver Suspension Underscores League Authority Over Owners

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The NBA on Tuesday suspended Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury owner Robert Sarver for one year in response to findings by attorneys David Anders and Sarah Eddy of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; they found that Sarver, on multiple occasions, expressed a racial epithet, humiliated women employees and oversaw a workplace that permitted hostile interactions and disrespectful communications.

The league says that 320 individuals, including current and former employees, were interviewed and more than 80,000 emails, texts, videos and other documents were reviewed.

The NBA retained Wachtell in the aftermath of an ESPN report published last November that leveled numerous allegations against Sarver. At the time both the Suns and Sarver, who’s owned the team for 18 years, offered a denial and criticized ESPN’s reporting.

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As part of his punishment, Sarver must complete a workplace training program and pay a $10 million fine, the maximum amount allowed under league rules, which the league will donate to organizations committed to addressing race and gender-based issues. He’ll also be prohibited from appearing at any NBA or WNBA team facility, arena, practice facility or office, and he is barred from any leadership or governance pertaining to the leagues.

In a statement, Saver says though he “disagrees with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report,” he apologizes for his words and actions and “takes full responsibility.” Sarver also signals he will not attempt to appeal or litigate the suspension, saying, “I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision.”

The Anders-Eddy report offers a damning portrayal of the 60-year-old billionaire; it accuses Sarver of repeatedly engaging in misconduct that violates “common workplace standards.” He allegedly said the N-word “at least five times in repeating or purporting to repeat what a Black person said.” One time occurred during a 2004 meeting to recruit a free agent; other times involved a team-building exercise and while quoting a player’s family member, who is black and who used the N-word in reference to where people were seated on a plane.

The report also charges Sarver demeaned female employees, including when telling a pregnant staffer that she’d “be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother.” He also allegedly berated another woman in front of others, and routinely expressed crude jokes about sexual acts, human anatomy and peoples’ appearances.

Anders and Eddy acknowledge that while their report is thorough, it faced structural limitations, similar to those of any law firm commissioned to investigate workplace misconduct. Attorneys lack subpoena power, meaning they can’t compel cooperation nor are offered statements made under oath. To that point, 124 people whom Anders and Eddy contacted to request to interview either said no or didn’t respond. The report also admits that most of the allegations concerned events from years ago, and in some instances more than a decade ago. Witness recollections, particularly after a period of years, become less reliable as time passes. The report noted that emails and other contemporaneous records were not always preserved.

For his part, Sarver attempted to paint a more inclusive picture of the Suns’ workplace. He stressed that during the 2021-22 season, no other team in the NBA “employed a higher percentage of people of color (55%) in basketball ops.” He also referenced speaking out publicly against a state bill that would authorize law enforcement to ask about immigration status and partook in other acts that purportedly promote diversity. Sarver and the Suns are also described as “fully” cooperating with the investigation. They provided “unfettered access” to materials, and Sarver agreed to have his personal cell phone “forensically imaged and reviewed.”

Part of the Suns’ willingness to cooperate likely reflects the broad investigative and disciplinary powers accorded to the league and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Under the league constitution—a document that teams and owners contractually assent to follow—Silver can investigate any matter “that may adversely affect” the league. Owners are also prohibited from engaging in any “conduct prejudicial or detrimental” to the NBA, with statements that prove adverse to league interests classified within the band of prohibited conduct. Sarver using the N-word would by itself warrant punishment; his other misconduct, including sexist statements about women and various crude jokes, were also sanctionable.

Sarver’s one-year suspension falls short of the NBA’s lifetime ban of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose racist comments were recorded. One key difference with Sterling is that his remarks triggered quantifiable damage to the league. Players threatened to boycott games, sponsors dropped the Clippers, and the U.S. president at the time, Barack Obama, publicly denounced Sterling.

The allegations against Sarver haven’t yet sparked an analogous impact. In fact, as Sportico wrote, the Suns have thrived of late. Further, Sarver’s suspension as an owner will effectively outlast that imposed on Sterling, whose wife, Shelly Sterling, took control of the team and sold it to Steve Ballmer within a few months of her husband’s suspension—meaning Sterling’s suspension as owner ended when Ballmer took the team.

In a statement Silver said, “The findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing.” However, the league makes no mention of a recommendation that Sarver sell the Suns or that it will pursue a charge to remove him. Under the league constitution, at least three-quarters of the 29 controlling owners of every other team (meaning at least 22 of the 29) must vote to sustain an NBA charge.

The NBA charged Sterling, but his wife gained control of the Clippers before either a hearing was scheduled or a vote was taken. Owners accused of misconduct can also feel pressured to leave. Former Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson sold the team in 2015 in the wake of a league investigation finding that he wrote emails saying black Hawks fans had “scared away” white Hawks fans.

(Asli Pelit contributed to this report, which has been updated throughout the article and in the headline.)

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