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Pressure mounts on Robert Sarver to sell Suns following suspension

Suns owner Robert Sarver is facing calls for his removal following his one-year suspension by the NBA. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

A Phoenix Suns minority owner and a key team sponsor called for the removal of embattled owner Robert Sarver following his one-year suspension by the NBA for using racist and misogynistic language, raising the possibility of an extended internal power struggle for control of the organization.

In separate statements, Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi and PayPal CEO Dan Schulman indicated that they do not want Sarver to return to his post after the completion of his one-year suspension. Investigators from the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm documented a laundry list of workplace misconduct violations in a 43-page report prompted by an ESPN report last year that documented Sarver’s behavior.

“Similar conduct by any CEO, executive director, president, teacher, coach, or any other position of leadership would warrant immediate termination,” Najafi said Thursday in his statement. He added: “I cannot in good judgment sit back and allow our children and future generations of fans [to] think that this behavior is tolerated because of wealth and privilege. Therefore, in accordance with my commitment to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism and bias, as Vice Chairman of the Phoenix Suns, I am calling for the resignation of Robert Sarver.”

Schulman, whose company’s logo appears on the Suns jerseys, said PayPal would not renew its sponsorship deal when it concludes after the upcoming season because of Sarver’s “unacceptable” conduct unless he sells the team.

“In light of the findings of the NBA’s investigation, we will not renew our sponsorship should Robert Sarver remain involved with the Suns organization, after serving his suspension,” Schulman said in his statement.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday that the league’s Board of Governors had not discussed the possibility of removing Sarver as an owner, as it did in 2014 with then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. In addition to his one-year suspension, Sarver was fined $10 million after investigators found that he had “said the n-word at least five times” in “repeating or purporting to repeat” the statements of others while also making countless crass comments toward women in the workplace and exposing himself to employees on multiple occasions.

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While Sterling’s removal as Clippers owner followed fierce blowback from fans, players, sponsors and the league itself, Sarver, whose ownership tenure began in 2004, has given no indication that he plans to sell the team. On the contrary, he fiercely disputed the allegations against him when they were initially raised and issued a statement Tuesday in which he “apologize[d] for my words and actions that offended our employees” and “accept[ed] the consequences of the NBA’s decision.”

The 60-year-old real estate developer added that he “disagree[d] with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report,” and his legal representatives argued that his behavior was not “based on racist, prejudiced or misogynistic intent” and that several of the allegations in ESPN’s story were not confirmed by investigators.

The Suns issued a statement Tuesday saying that the organization was “committed to creating a safe, respectful and inclusive work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment” and asserting that the NBA’s investigation was focused mostly on “historical matters that have been addressed in recent years.” The Suns’ statement gave no indication of a pending split with Sarver, noting that Sarver was “taking responsibility for his actions” and had acknowledged that his conduct “did not reflect his, or the Suns’ values.”

Sam Garvin, a Suns minority owner who backed Sarver when the allegation first came to light last year, will serve as the organization’s interim governor during Sarver’s suspension.

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Najafi, who broke from many of his Suns colleagues by publicly decrying Sarver’s behavior last year, said in his statement to team employees Thursday that he had no interest in becoming the organization’s majority owner.

“Team investors are merely temporary stewards,” Najafi said. “If we, as sports leaders, are not held to the same standards then how can we expect a functional society with integrity and respect on any level? We owe it to you: employees, players, partners, and your families to provide the same positive workplace environment we would require of any other business. … I will work tirelessly to ensure the next team steward treats all stakeholders with dignity, professionalism and respect.”

Suns guard Chris Paul said Wednesday that he felt Silver’s punishment of Sarver was insufficient, but the 12-time all-star stopped short of calling for the owner’s removal.

“I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read,” Paul wrote on Twitter. “This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated. 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.”

Although only a handful of NBA players, including Paul and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, have spoken out against Sarver this week, Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, called for his removal Wednesday.

“I have made my position known to Adam Silver regarding my thoughts on the extent of the punishment, and strongly believe that Mr. Sarver should never hold a managerial position within our league again,” she said.

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