The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Sarver: Racist, sexist ... and so rich that it doesn’t matter

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, center, was suspended for one year and fined $10 million by the NBA. (Ralph Freso/AP)

The greatest threat to the integrity of pro sports is the unchecked, immoral owner. He slithers across all of these leagues, rich and toxic and indestructible, profiting from sports’ charm without upholding their virtue. You can expose his misdeeds, shame him and force him to answer to people who are supposed to have real power. He will escape, though. And those like him will multiply.

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, the man currently in trouble, is not an outlier. He’s just the latest to get busted during a distressing period of abusive leadership throughout sports. The details of his alleged sins may differ from Daniel Snyder’s in Washington, Stephen Ross’s in Miami or any other recent scandal involving prominent stakeholders. But their insolence reeks just the same. And most of them outlast their troubles. It takes something as incendiary as audio of Donald Sterling making racist remarks to get an owner evicted.

To conclude its investigation of Sarver, the NBA released a damning 43-page report Tuesday and announced he would be suspended for one year and fined $10 million. It was a light punishment considering the league’s detailed findings of racism, misogyny and hostile behavior. Sadly, it must have been the best NBA Commissioner Adam Silver felt he could do.

Given the structure of major professional sports leagues, an overwhelming majority of franchise owners must unite and vote out one of their own. They shudder at establishing that level of accountability. The ousting of Sterling in 2014 may have been a once-in-a-lifetime comeuppance. If NBA owners opened that door again, they never would be able to close it. They will absorb the humiliation Sarver has brought to the league for the same reason the NFL tolerated Snyder and gave him perfunctory discipline for fostering a similar culture. Many of them know that, because they also have skeletons, too much policing could be detrimental to their desire to avoid ever really having to answer to anyone for anything.

“There are particular rights here to someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to someone who is an employee,” Silver said Tuesday, trying to answer questions about why Sarver can get away with behavior that would be a fireable offense for others. “It’s different than holding a job.”

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

Sarver has left his partners around the NBA with an enormous mess two weeks before training camps open. The NBA and WNBA carry the social justice mantle in sports. It’s a wonderful thing when they use their influence for good. It’s a burden when they must react to bad within their walls. The expectation is higher, and the pushback reflects that. Civil rights leaders are appropriately calling out the sport for going easy on Sarver.

“The NBA’s response is shameful,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “Fining a billionaire $10 million is nothing but a speeding ticket. They have failed to adequately address this man’s history of racism, sexism, and his years-long nourishment of a toxic culture.”

Johnson pointed out that the NBA cannot celebrate Bill Russell, its foundational winner and athlete activist who died in July, and leave the perception that Sarver is so easily worthy of redemption. Beyond details of Sarver’s liberal use of the n-word, the months-long investigation into his management style over 18 years owning the Suns included numerous examples of predatory and unprofessional behavior, from comments about oral sex to talking to a female employee about her breasts to emailing pornography to other men in the Suns organization.

The NBA seemed to have everything on him. The unfortunate reality is that, in a warring society that now considers most things nebulous, it probably needed audio or video of Sarver behaving badly to surface publicly.

“The fact that the NBA would hand down this so-called ‘punishment’ in the same year we lost a legend like Bill Russell, who fought racism his entire life, only underscores how prevalent racism still is today,” Johnson said. “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime whatsoever, and the NBA must do better than this. This is far from accountability.”

On the other side of this public outcry, there is Sarver’s reaction. ESPN reported a “largely acrimonious” punishment process. At the end of every sports investigation into an ownership group, there is always a “How dare you?” confrontation. Silver and the league office don’t govern the governors. In essence, they work for these 30 owners. Sarver is a boss, negotiating punishment as a significant stakeholder in this corporate sports conglomerate. There is no single authority that can fully check his power. That would require enough influence to pool owners who often have dissimilar passions but the same goal: to play with their toys as they please. When owners get in trouble, they all think of their commissioners as the highest-paid janitors in the world: Clean it up and move on.

“The conduct is indefensible, but I feel like we dealt with it in a fair manner,” Silver said Wednesday in defending Sarver’s punishment.

The common belief seems to be that owners, in the background raking in the cash, can’t ruin our sports joy. To date, that may be true. But every generation gets to reassess old ways of thinking. And the sentiments of society control how businesses operate, especially in major pro sports, which rely so heavily on public funding.

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Right now, every tale of misconduct is viewed in isolation. Step back, however, and you see a pattern of troubling toxicity from leaders that extends from the professional ranks to colleges and down to the lower levels of sport. It rots the entire experience. At some point, the damage will become so severe and so obvious that people will look beyond what’s happening on the field of play and fight harder to protect the cultures in which these games exist. Some of the saccharine views about their value will be challenged, which can lead to a loosening of their grip.

It’s hard to know whether owners such as Sarver recognize the danger. They don’t have to look around. Their wealth affords them blinders.

“In terms of future behavior, he’s on notice,” Silver said of Sarver. “He knows that. Most of the inappropriate activity goes back many years. The Suns’ workplace is a very different environment today.”

Maybe he’s embarrassed and reformed. Maybe his colleagues will learn from his shame. However, the rhythm of the past decade has been that one shocking revelation begets another, and smart people with limited power are left to protect impervious owners one rationalization at a time.

The Sarver controversy should be a warning for other owners to get their houses in order. But they live in gated communities. How dare you think you can get to them?