That NBA suspended this week Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury Owner Robert Sarver for a year, plus a $10 million fine, after an investigation found he engaged in what the league called “workplace misconduct and organizational shortcomings.”
Things got tougher for Sarver on Thursday when Jahm Najafi – the franchise’s second-largest shareholder – sent an open letter to team staff calling for Sarver’s resignation.
“I cannot in good conscience sit back and allow our children and future generations of fans to think that this behavior is tolerated because of wealth and privilege,” Najafi wrote. “Therefore, consistent with my commitment to help eliminate all forms of racism, sexism and prejudice as vice chairman of the Phoenix Suns, I call for the resignation of Robert Sarver.”
The findings of the league’s report released Tuesday came nearly a year after the NBA asked a law firm to investigate allegations that Sarver had a history of racist, misogynistic and hostile incidents during his nearly two-decade tenure as head of the franchise.
Sarver said he would “accept the consequences of the league’s decision” and apologized for “words and actions that offended our staff,” but noted he disagreed with some of the report’s findings.
The report states that Sarver “repeated or allegedly repeated the N-word at least five times during his tenure with the Suns,” but added that the investigation “provides no finding that Sarver used this racially insensitive language with the intention of to humiliate or disparage him.”
The study also concluded that Sarver used demeaning language towards female employees, including telling a pregnant employee that she would no longer be able to work after becoming a mother; made inappropriate comments and jokes about sex and anatomy; and yelled at and verbally abused employees in a manner that “by workplace standards” would be considered bullying.
The $10 million fine is the maximum allowed by NBA rule.
“I take full responsibility for what I did,” Sarver said. “I’m sorry for causing this pain and these misperceptions do not align with my personal philosophy or values. … This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate my ability to learn and grow as we continue to build our work culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”
Sarver, the league said, cannot be present at any NBA or WNBA team facility, including offices, arenas, or practice facilities; attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices or business partner activities; represent the Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity; or are in any way involved in the business or basketball activities of the Suns or Mercury.
The league announced it would donate the $10 million “to organizations committed to addressing racial and gender issues in and outside of the workplace.”
“The statements and behavior described in the independent investigation’s findings are disturbing and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “We believe the result is the right one, considering all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light through the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding appropriate standards in the NBA workplace.”
It is the second highest penalty – in terms of total sanctions – ever imposed by the NBA on a team owner Donald Sterling is banned for life by Silver in 2014. Sterling was fined $2.5 million, the highest legal amount at the time, and forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the massive failures He then made racist comments in a recorded conversation.
The allegations against Sarver were reported last year by ESPN, which said it spoke to dozens of current and former team employees about his story, including some who detailed inappropriate behavior. He originally denied or denied most of the allegations through his legal team.
On Tuesday, Sarver officials said the findings of the investigation “confirmed that there is no evidence whatsoever to support several of the allegations in ESPN’s November 2021 coverage.”
“While it is difficult to identify exactly what Sarver’s workplace behavior described in this report, certain patterns emerged from eyewitness accounts: Sarver often acted aggressively in an apparent effort to provoke a response from his subjects; Sarver’s sense of humor was sophomoric and inappropriate for the workplace; and Sarver behaved as if workplace standards and policies did not apply to him,” according to the report by New York-based investigative firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
Sarver must complete a training program “focused on respect and appropriate behavior in the workplace” during his suspension, the league said.
Sarver denied the allegations by his attorney in a letter to the league in June, insisting the allegations against him were “provenly false”.
Attorney, Thomas Clare, wrote that Sarver’s records show a “longstanding commitment to social and racial justice” and that it testifies to his “commitment to diversity, justice and inclusion.”
“Mr. Sarver is one of the few NBA owners who continues to support and drive the development of professional women’s basketball,” Clare wrote, citing improvements to the Mercury team’s facilities as the Suns claim a league-best 55% minority employment rate in the front office and how more than half of the Suns’ coaches and general managers during Sarver’s tenure — including current coach Monty Williams and current GM James Jones — are black.
Among the league’s findings:
– That Sarver engaged in “raw, sexual, and vulgar comments and behavior in the workplace,” including references to sexual acts, condoms, and anatomy, referring both to his own and to those of others.
– The investigation also found that Sarver sent a small number of male Suns employees “joking pornographic material and crude emails, including emails with photos of a naked woman and video of two people having sex.”
— Sarver, the investigation found, unnecessarily exposed himself to a male Suns employee during a fitness check, caused discomfort in another male employee by grabbing him and dancing ‘pelvis to pelvis’ and standing naked in front of a man at a Christmas party Employees after a shower.
— He also made comments about female employees, the investigation found, including the attractiveness of Suns dancers, and asked a female Suns employee if she had breast augmentation surgery.
The league will also require the Suns and Mercury to engage in a range of workplace improvements, including retaining outside firms that will “focus on fostering a diverse, inclusive and respectful workplace.”
Employees of these organizations are surveyed anonymously and regularly to ensure an appropriate workplace culture is in place. The NBA and WNBA must be promptly notified of any instances or even allegations of material employee misconduct.
All these conditions are valid for three years.
The league said the findings of the investigation are based on interviews with 320 people, including current and former employees who have worked for teams during Sarver’s 18 years with the Suns, and a review of more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including Emails, text messages and videos.
Sarver and the Suns and Mercury “fully cooperated with the investigation,” the league said.
“Regardless of position, power or intention, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful effects of racially insensitive and degrading language and behavior,” Silver said. “On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to everyone affected by the misconduct described in the investigator’s report. We have to do better.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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