Robert Sarver is rich and in a position of power, and because of that, he thought he could do and say things without consequence.
And he probably did in positions unrelated to the NBA and WNBA.
But as owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, Sarver must follow workplace rules, and a 10-month investigation into Sarver’s behavior found he violated common workplace standards.
“This behavior includes using racially insensitive language. unequal treatment of female workers; statements and behavior related to sex; and violence against employees that sometimes resulted in bullying,” the law firm Vachtel, Lipton, Rosen & Katz wrote in a comprehensive and unflattering 36-page report on Sarver.
After taking over for David Stern in 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Sarver $10 million and suspended him from all Sun and Mercury activities for one year.
Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s life ban, fine and forced sale of the team is the second major punishment for an NBA owner.
Sarver, according to reports, had the gall to resist the punishment. Sterling is lucky he didn’t get treatment.
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‘He should be ashamed’ Sarver’s punishment attracted a lot of criticism
What are the main findings of the report?
Sarver has used the N-word on at least five occasions — most recently in 2017. Each time, Sarver said he was just saying what someone else said, and that even if someone said what he said, he was told by others that he couldn’t say the word. There is another.
“He engaged in unfair treatment of female employees, made numerous sexually suggestive 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 behavior toward male employees. According to the investigation.
He told a pregnant worker that she couldn’t do her job when she became a mother and commented that women cry a lot.
Sarver verbally abused and yelled at and at times staff.
Why is the sun and mercury not forced to sell?
“The investigation made no finding that Sarver’s actions were based on race or gender,” a key phrase in the report reads.
In Sterling’s case, there was clear racial animus, and Sterling’s double-down on his comments put himself in an impossible position.
That line in the report saved Sarver from further sanctions. As a practical matter, Silver has the power to make decisions that benefit the league, but he doesn’t want to be in the business of forcing owners to sell their stakes in teams.
Also, owners generally don’t want to be in the position of pushing others. They must approve such a method, and it is naive to ignore their financial needs.
Don’t forget the phrase “animus.” That report was written by lawyers for lawyers. The NBA chose not to issue a major penalty without Sarver acting on purpose (evidence suggests Sarver emailed pornography to certain male executives) and without Sarver’s lame excuse. But if you think the punishment is too light, you are not wrong.
What was Silver’s reaction?
The commissioner was not happy. “The statements and actions outlined in the findings of the independent investigation are disturbing and disappointing,” he said in a statement, concluding: “On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all those affected by the misconduct revealed in the investigations. Report it. We must do better.”
For such situations, silver gets a large amount in part in its role. He works for the owners and is charged with keeping 30 NBA teams on the same page when there isn’t always universal agreement on league matters. Part of that duty is to protect the league, its owners and their investments.
How did the Suns, Sarver respond?
Suns Legacy Partners, LLC, which manages and operates Suns and Mercury, said in a statement that it is “committed to creating a safe, respectful and inclusive work environment free of discrimination.”
The NBA ordered the Suns to take specific steps to improve workplace culture and update the league with regular reports “regarding the steps the organization is taking to meet these requirements.”
Sarver released a statement that included this line: “While I disagree with some of the details in the NBA report, I apologize for my words and actions that upset our staff.”
He added, “I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to learn and grow as we continue to build a work culture where every employee is comfortable and valued.”
This contradicts Sarver’s November statement following ESPN’s initial exposé on Sarver, in which he said the n-word was not part of his vocabulary. “At this point,” he then said, “I fully welcome an independent NBA investigation that can confirm our sole position to clear my name and the name of the organization that I am so proud of.”
Where does the good money go?
The NBA will donate the money to “organizations committed to addressing issues of race and gender in the workplace and outside of the workplace.” The league did the same when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined the same amount after an investigation into the Mavs’ dysfunctional workplace culture.
What’s next for Sarver?
Sarver’s one-year ban means he can have no contact with the teams and that includes attending games or practices; visit any NBA or WNBA team facility; representing the Sun or Mercury publicly or privately; No involvement with business or basketball activities of Sun or Mercury; and no involvement in “NBA or WNBA business, administration or activities, including attending or participating in either league’s board meetings.”
Sarver, 60, must complete a training program focused on respect and proper workplace etiquette.
Is Sarver enough to sell the team’s shares? Sarver et al bought Sun for $401 million in 2004, and Forbes estimates Sun’s value will quadruple to $1.8 billion by 2021. Last year, USA TODAY Sports learned that Sarver owned 35% of the Suns and that co-owner Jahm Najafi was the second largest investor.
Behind the scenes team ownership dynamics will be interesting to watch unfold in Phoenix.