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NBA commissioner defends punishment of Suns owner Robert Sarver

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended his one-year suspension of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver following a lengthy investigation into the team's workplace culture. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Facing a torrent of questions about the NBA’s investigation of Robert Sarver, which found the Phoenix Suns owner repeatedly used racist and misogynistic language and exposed himself to team employees, Commissioner Adam Silver defended his decision to levy a one-year suspension and $10 million fine rather than pursue a lifetime ban.

Silver, who addressed reporters following a meeting of the league’s Board of Governors in New York on Wednesday, said that he was “saddened and disheartened” by Sarver’s behavior, and he issued an apology to current and former Suns employees. Despite calls to force out Sarver, Silver said that the NBA’s owners had not discussed banning Sarver while noting that his suspension was the “second longest” in league history and his fine was the maximum allowed.

“The conduct is indefensible, but I feel like we dealt with it in a fair manner,” said Silver, who acknowledged that he had the authority to suspend Sarver for a longer period. “I have access to information that the public doesn’t. I’m able to look at the totality of the circumstances around those events, in a way that we’re not able to completely bring to light, the nuance, when you read a report or deal with it in short bursts of news reporting. That puts me in a different position.”

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Following an ESPN.com article about Sarver’s behavior last November, the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm conducted an independent investigation, which produced a 43-page report, released Tuesday, that covered Sarver’s 18-year ownership tenure. In the report, investigators found that Sarver had “repeated or purported to repeat the n-word” at least five times “when recounting the statements of others” while also making countless crass comments toward women in the workplace.

Yet the report’s writers noted that they made “no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus,” chalking up much of his inappropriate behavior and comments to a “sophomoric” sense of humor and a desire to provoke.

Silver said that he would have considered a different punishment had the investigators reached a different conclusion on this point, and he drew a distinction between Sarver, who was found by investigators to have used the n-word on five separate occasions, and former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was banned from the NBA by Silver in 2014.

Sterling was guilty of “blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people” and had made additional comments after being contacted by the league, Silver said. By comparison, Sarver’s comments were “beyond the pale in every possible way” but were “wholly of a different kind than we saw in the earlier case.” The difference, it seemed, was the investigators’ conclusion that Sarver had “repeated or purported to repeat the n-word” after it had been used by Black people.

“I think all of us would want to be judged by the totality of all we’ve done, good and bad,” Silver said. “His track record of hiring, his track record of support for particular employees. There were many, many people who had very positive things to say about him. I took all of that into account.”

Meanwhile, the NAACP called Silver’s ruling “shameful” and a “speeding ticket” on Tuesday, while the Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday that Silver’s “light punishment … greatly misses the mark.”

“Nobody can evolve from being a bigot,” Sharpton said. “This one-year suspension is a Band-Aid on a tumor. To say it is in remission while it grows will only make the entire league sicker. We must remove this cancer swiftly and precisely, while sending a message that hate has no place in American sports.”

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James became the first prominent active player to speak out on the decision.

“Our league definitely got this wrong. I don’t need to explain why. Y’all read the stories and decide for yourself,” the four-time MVP tweeted on Wednesday. “I said it before and I’m gonna say it again, there is no place in this league for that kind of behavior. I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any work place. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team. We hold our league up as an example of our values and this aint it.”

Later Wednesday, point guard and former NBPA president Chris Paul, who has played for the Suns the past two seasons and helped lead them to the 2021 NBA Finals, spoke out on Twitter about Sarver’s punishment.

“Like many others, I reviewed the report. I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read. This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated,” Paul tweeted. “I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior. My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected.”

Former NBA guard Jamal Crawford, who played for both Sterling’s Clippers and Sarver’s Suns, saw history repeating.

“Sterling 2.0,” he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, wrote on Twitter late Wednesday that Sarver “should never hold a managerial position within our league again” because “his racial and gender insensitivity, misogyny and harassment” had created “a toxic work environment for well over a decade.”

Silver nevertheless repeatedly defended Sarver on Wednesday, asserting that the 60-year-old real estate developer had taken “complete accountability and seemed fully remorseful” during a recent conversation and that he had done “many very positive things” as an owner. In a statement Tuesday, Sarver apologized but said that he “disagree[d] with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report.”

The commissioner also asserted that many of the incidents had come in the early stages of his 18-year ownership tenure and that Sarver has “evolved as a person” in recent years. However, investigators noted that Sarver had discussed oral sex during a 2021 business meeting and that he had used the n-word repeatedly as recently as 2016, more than a decade after he was first told by associates not to do so.

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Pressed on why Sarver would get to continue owning the Suns when any rank-and-file employee would be fired for similar behavior, Silver said that “there are particular rights here for people who own an NBA team” and acknowledged that removing an owner is a “very involved process,” one that requires a three-quarter majority vote of the other owners and could lead to a legal battle.

“There’s no neat answer here,” Silver said. “Owning property, the rights that come with owning a team, how that’s set up within our constitution … is different than holding a job. It just is when you own a team. It’s just a very different proposition. … The consequences are severe here for Mr. Sarver, reputationally. It’s hard to even make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in an anonymous fashion, compared to what is a huge public issue.”

Per the terms of his suspension, 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 or participate in any of their business operations. Sarver also must complete a workplace training program “focused on respect and appropriate conduct” while heeding the NBA’s stern warning.

“In terms of future behavior, he’s on notice,” Silver said. “He knows that.”

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