NBA Failed Victims of Misconduct Suns Owner Robert Sarver

By agreeing to sell its franchises, Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver may be seeking to relieve the NBA of its own grave miscarriage of justice, so we must be reminded that none of this would have happened without the courage of people who risked their livelihood to expose his transgressions.

It seems unlikely that the NBA would have ever held Sarver up to fire were it not for the fact that more than 70 of its current and former employees would reveal allegations of racism, misogyny and other workplace misconduct to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, allegations that were made in November. 2021 were published. The league admitted it did not receive a single tip about Sarver’s behavior to the anonymous hotline it set up in the wake of Sports Illustrated’s 2018 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the Dallas Mavericks organization.

If the NBA takes its commitment to social justice seriously, the league must ask itself: Are we doing enough to convince our employees that we are committed to making them a safe and just workplace?

The independent investigation into Sarver’s misconduct, launched only after ESPN’s disclosure, included extensive cases of harassment throughout his 18-year tenure, from confirmation that he used the N-word in a recruiting pitch for a free agent during his first season as a team owner in 2004 before confirming his use of sexually explicit language at a meeting in 2021. It’s hard to believe the league was unaware of Sarver’s violations.

Even with a 43-page report filled with evidence to the contrary, the NBA endorsed the independent law firm’s finding that “there was no finding that Sarver’s behavior was motivated by racial or gender-based hostility.”

Commissioner Adam Silver did not cover himself in glory when he stated, “There are certain rights here of someone who owns an NBA team, as opposed to someone who is an employee.” His clarification that employees and franchisees are “absolutely held to the same standard of appropriate conduct” fainted miserably, given the paltry one-year suspension and $10 million fine levied against Sarver in lieu of a life ban.

It put the responsibility back on the whistleblowers, some of whom still work for the Suns, to forgive and forget.

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver announced plans to sell both franchises amid his outrageous behavior.  (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver announced plans to sell both franchises amid his outrageous behavior. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Finally, the money spoke. Paypal promised not to renew its long-standing partnership with the Suns and Mercury should Sarver return to his post at the end of the suspension. A single member of Sarver’s ownership group spoke out against the managing partner’s stewardship. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, more league and team sponsors were willing to stop associating with the Phoenix franchises. The National Basketball Players Association had just started protesting and called for Sarver’s resignation. And Sarver eventually folded.

Perhaps this has been the NBA’s hopes all along, that the financial fallout from Sarver’s scandal would exert enough pressure to force his impeachment, and that the league’s 29 other property groups reduce the likelihood of further repercussions from the discovery process. behind a potentially controversial legal battle.

However we got here, it’s not because the NBA has done everything it can to protect the rights of its employees.

It wasn’t until TMZ released tapes of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments, followed by protests from players and sponsors, before the NBA issued its lifetime ban. Sterling’s behavior was no secret, having paid for a few historically large lawsuits against housing discrimination in the past decade. Even then, it was Shelly Sterling, not the league, that facilitated her husband’s impeachment, deemed him legally unfit to make decisions and vowed not to sue the NBA as part of her sale.

Likewise, it was the Sports Illustrated report that revealed widespread sexual harassment, abuse and other misconduct within the Mavericks’ organization. The resulting independent NBA investigation found that club owner Mark Cuban had prior knowledge of repeated sexual harassment — and violent threats against — his co-workers by one employee, as well as two domestic violence acts committed by another employee, including one involving a co-worker. . Cuban denied insider knowledge of team president and CEO Terdema Ussery’s “inappropriate workplace behavior towards 15 female employees,” despite The Dallas Morning News unearthed an internal investigation into Ussery’s violations prior to Cuban’s purchase of the team. .

“Sorry. It doesn’t work that way,” Melissa Weisenhaupt, a marketing manager for the 2010-14 Mavericks and one of Ussery’s accusers, wrote to SI. “When I was working on the business side of the Mavs, all marketing, promotion and broadcasting decisions were made through you. Nothing was decided without your approval.”

Led by Cuba, “many employees stated that the company’s apparent inaction … fueled their belief that it was futile to file complaints about human resources.” In Sarver’s case, the culture was nearly identical: “Employees were reluctant to report issues and also hesitant to complete HR surveys.”

As for Sterling, his racism was widely publicized long before 2014. In addition to the housing discrimination lawsuits, Elgin Baylor, one of the greatest players of all time, who spent 22 years of his post-playing career as general manager of the Clippers, made several claims of racial discrimination in a lawsuit against Sterling.

In all cases, the NBA did not investigate or claim to have any prior knowledge of the widespread misconduct in its midst. The competition must be able to explain why it did not act or did not know. We won’t like the answers, as was the case when Silver alluded to them in his press conference. Employees rightly believe that their voices will not be heard, as the power dynamics are strongly tilted toward NBA franchise owners, and the league office is obligated to them even if misconduct is exposed.

It took Sarver’s employees the courage to come forward with their accounts of harassment victims, Holmes’ tireless reporting to uncover the sordid details, a 10-month independent investigation into all this, and still the NBA held the team owner not stuck to account. After that, it took more media attention, player conviction, a principled minority owner and the withdrawal of sponsorship to force Saver’s hand.

Yet Sarver will walk with the fortune he made on the backs of those he denigrated. As Shelly Sterling told Shelburne about her husband in 2019: “He’s happy he sold the team now. Yes. He tells a lot of people. He says, ‘You know, I had to sell the team, but I got it. feeling like I fell off a tree and I landed on a pile of gold.'”

Certainly more wrongdoing has been discovered in the NBA, otherwise a league that claims to pride itself on progressivism would have received three-quarters of the vote from club owners to oust the worst among them. We can only hope that their subordinates are brave enough to tell their story, because if we’ve learned anything from this mess, there are outside forces willing to hold the powerful accountable if the NBA isn’t.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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