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NBA suspends Suns owner Robert Sarver for use of n-word, misogynistic comments

The NBA has suspended Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million after an investigation into his workplace conduct. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The NBA has suspended Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million after an expansive independent investigation into the organization’s workplace culture concluded that he had used racial epithets and treated female employees by a different standard than their male counterparts, among other violations of the league’s policies.

The independent investigation, which was initiated after an article about Sarver’s behavior last November and undertaken by the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm, conducted interviews with 320 individuals and reviewed more than 80,000 documents. Its findings were summarized in a 43-page report, released Tuesday, that covered Sarver’s 18-year ownership tenure.

Investigators concluded that Sarver had “repeated or purported to repeat the n-word” at least five times “when recounting the statements of others,” corroborating allegations made last year by former Suns coach Earl Watson.

The report also stated that Sarver had “made many sex-related comments in the workplace” and “made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women.”

Sarver will be barred from attending all NBA and WNBA games and from team facilities, and he cannot appear at public events on behalf of the Suns or the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. The 60-year-old real estate developer also cannot be involved in his organizations’ business operations or league meetings. His $10 million fine is the maximum allowed under NBA rules.

However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stopped short of issuing a lifetime ban to Sarver, a punishment that he doled out to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught on tape making racist comments in 2014.

In a statement, Silver said that the investigation’s findings were “troubling and disappointing,” and that Sarver’s punishment was “the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context” throughout his ownership tenure.

Though the report chalked up some of Sarver’s behavior to his “sophomoric and inappropriate” sense of humor and his “lack of a filter,” it also noted that he “often acted aggressively” and in a provocative manner toward employees, that he had made “crude” sexual references in the workplace on more than 20 occasions and that more than 50 witnesses recalled incidents in which he yelled at or cursed at employees. What’s more, the report noted that Sarver continued to use the n-word while recounting statements made by Black people for years after he was first informed such comments were unacceptable.

Yet the NBA’s statement noted that the “investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus,” perhaps explaining why Silver chose to suspend Sarver rather than pursuing banishment.

“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,” Silver said. “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 NAACP called the NBA’s response “shameful.”

“Fining a billionaire $10 million is nothing but a speeding ticket,” the organization’s president, Derrick Johnson, said in a statement. “They have failed to adequately address this man’s history of racism, sexism, and his years-long nourishment of a toxic culture. … This is far from accountability.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who had been in contact with the NBA regarding Sarver’s conduct, called for Sarver to be banned in light of his “egregious acts of racism and misogyny.”

“I encourage the Board of Governors to hold Mr. Sarver fully accountable for his actions, and to vote for his removal from the league in recognition that his behavior does not represent the values of the NBA,” Sharpton said in a statement.

In response to the investigation, the Suns issued a statement touting their new human resources leadership team and “meaningful enhancements” to ensure a proper standard for workplace behavior. The Suns said that the NBA’s findings were focused “for the most part, on historical matters that have been addressed in recent years,” adding that they “take seriously” the league’s conclusions.

“While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees,” Sarver said in a statement. “I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophies or my values. I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision.”

A litany of violations

The investigators’ report was comprehensive and unsparing, recounting new incidents and adding corroboration to details published previously in media reports.

According to witnesses, Sarver used the n-word while recruiting a free agent in 2004, during a team-building exercise in 2012 or 2013 and after an October 2016 game against the Golden State Warriors. Additionally, Sarver used the slur twice while retelling a story about what a player’s family member had said while boarding the team’s plane. According to two witnesses, Sarver quoted the family member saying: “White folks in the front, n-words in the back.”

The report noted that four witnesses became uncomfortable after the 2004 incident and that one had directly told Sarver, who is White, “that he could never say the n-word, even when quoting someone else.” Similarly, a team representative told Sarver after the incident in 2012 or 2013 “that he could not use this word.”

Nevertheless, the investigation concluded that Sarver repeatedly used the n-word in 2016 after hearing a Warriors player, who is Black, saying it during the game. According to a coach, a second witness and two people who heard contemporaneous reports of the incident, Sarver “burst into [the coach’s] office” and asked why it was okay for the Warriors player to use that word and then asked why he couldn’t use the word himself.

Sarver then sent an email to the NBA league office to complain about the officials in which, investigators said, he “purported to quote the Warriors player as saying the N-word spelled out with an ‘a’ at the end.”

Investigators also explored the possibility of racial motivations behind Watson’s 2017 firing. Watson, who is Black, was represented by Klutch Sports, which was founded by Rich Paul, who is also Black. In the run-up to the 2017-18 season, the report stated that Sarver and Paul were involved in a “contentious negotiation” concerning Eric Bledsoe, who is Black, and that Sarver felt that Paul’s representation of Watson and the player represented a “conflict of interest.”

Sarver confirmed that he threatened to fire Watson if he didn’t leave Klutch Sports. Watson stayed with his representation and was fired three games into the 2017-18 season. However, the owner maintained that the dispute with Watson didn’t have “anything to do with race.”

Investigators ultimately concluded that Sarver was “upset” with Klutch Sports’ “tactics,” including a trade request on behalf of Bledsoe, and that Watson was fired after the Suns’ basketball operations staff recommended the move.

“The investigation does not find that Sarver opposed the coach’s continued representation by the agency because its founder is Black or fired the coach for that reason,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, the report detailed several incidents of objectionable treatment of female employees. In one case, Sarver told a pregnant employee that she must stop working on an assignment because her baby “needs their mom, not their father.” In another, he asked a female employee whether she had gotten “an upgrade” — a euphemism for a breast augmentation. In a third, he berated a female employee for her performance in 2011, objected when she started crying and subsequently held a lunch for four female employees that was perceived by attendees as a means to toughen them up.

Not long after Sarver purchased the Suns in 2004, Sarver came across a female employee as he got ready to take a shower in the team’s facilities.

“You’ve never seen anything this big,” Sarver told the employee, according to the report.

During all-staff meetings, Sarver repeatedly made sexually suggestive comments. Investigators also found that he had emailed pornography to a “small group of male Suns employees,” and made comments about the appearance of the Suns’ female dance team members.

While receiving a “fitness check” from a male employee, Sarver “unnecessarily dropped his underwear” while the employee was kneeling in front of him, exposing himself. Sarver also danced “pelvis to pelvis” with a male employee at a holiday party, and asked at least one player on the 2009-10 team about personal grooming habits. And in an incident previously reported by ESPN, Sarver pulled down a male employee’s pants in front of co-workers during a 2014 charity event.

The report concluded that these episodes of Sarver’s physical behavior with male employees were made “not with an intent to make a sexual advance toward anyone, but with an intent to be provocative and/or attempt humor.”

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