Amid mounting pressure from NBA players, sponsors and local government officials and following his one-year suspension for using racist and misogynistic language, Robert Sarver announced Wednesday plans to sell the Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury.
“As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness. I expected that the commissioner’s one-year suspension would provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love,” Sarver said. “But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible — that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past. For those reasons, I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended Sarver for one year and fined him a maximum $10 million last week following the conclusion of a lengthy workplace conduct investigation launched in the wake of an ESPN.com article in November. Silver, however, stopped short of issuing a lifetime ban to Sarver, a punishment the commissioner had previously given to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014 for his racist comments.
Prominent NBA stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and Draymond Green, as well as National Basketball Players Association executive director Tamika Tremaglio, decried Sarver’s behavior and suggested Silver’s punishment didn’t go far enough, and PayPal said it wouldn’t renew its contract as the Suns’ jersey sponsor after this season if Sarver remained with the team, which he has owned since 2004. Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi and civil rights activists such as Rev. Al Sharpton called for Sarver’s resignation, while Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and city council members issued a statement saying they were “appalled” by his behavior and planned to conduct their own investigation.
With the 2022-23 season set to open next month and team media days slated to begin Sunday, Sarver’s decision to pursue a sale of the Suns was met with relief leaguewide given his strong initial denials of ESPN.com’s allegations and his reputation for stubbornness. Though he issued an apology after Silver suspended him, Sarver disputed some of the report’s findings and his legal representatives continued to quibble over some of the allegations. There were fears Sarver would dig in, like Sterling, thereby creating a protracted power struggle for the future of the Suns and an untenable day-to-day existence.
“I fully support the decision by Robert Sarver to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury,” Silver said in a statement Wednesday. “This is the right next step for the organization and community.”
Silver noted last week that he did not have the power as commissioner to unilaterally take the Suns from Sarver. Instead, the NBA’s Board of Governors would have needed to vote out Sarver by a three-quarters majority, a difficult and time-intensive proposition and one that could have prompted litigation from Sarver. The NBA’s decision to publish the investigators’ report publicly, though, exposed Sarver to widespread criticism and outrage. In the past, similar investigative reports have been summarized by the league rather than published fully.
“I’m so proud to be a part of a league committed to progress,” James tweeted Wednesday.
“We thank Mr. Sarver for making a swift decision that was in the best interest of our sports community,” NBPA President CJ McCollum said in a statement.
Investigators from the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm documented a lengthy list of workplace misconduct violations in a 43-page report, including Sarver using the n-word on at least five occasions, repeated examples of sexist behavior and multiple incidents in which Sarver exposed himself to employees.
According to witnesses, Sarver used the n-word while recruiting a free agent in 2004, during a team-building exercise in 2012 or 2013, after an October 2016 game against the Golden State Warriors and 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.” Investigators found that Sarver, who is White, continued to use the slur for years despite repeated warnings from colleagues that doing so was inappropriate.
Sarver’s transgressions toward female employees included telling one she must stop working on an assignment because her baby “needs their mom, not their father,” asking another whether she had gotten “an upgrade” — a euphemism for a breast augmentation — and telling another that she had “never seen anything this big” while he prepared to take a shower in the team’s facilities. In another incident, 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.
Investigators attributed some of Sarver’s behavior to his “sophomoric and inappropriate” sense of humor and his “lack of a filter,” but they documented incidents that repeatedly crossed the line into harassment. 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, pulled down a male employee’s pants in front of co-workers during a 2014 charity event and asked at least one player on the 2009-10 team about personal grooming habits.
Per the terms of his suspension, Sarver was barred from attending all NBA and WNBA games and from team facilities, he cannot appear at public events on behalf of the Suns or the WNBA’s Mercury, and he cannot be involved in his organizations’ business operations or league meetings. Sam Garvin, a longtime minority owner of the Suns, replaced Sarver on an interim basis.
“The racist old boys’ club in professional sports is officially closed,” Sharpton said in a statement. “A new era is upon us where it is intolerable to view Black players like property. Sarver’s decision today is the first step in the long road toward justice for the Suns and Mercury — the staff, the players, and the fans. It is now imperative that the NBA, both teams, the corporate sponsors, and the new owner, whomever they may be, follow through on the commitment to root out racism, misogyny, and hate.”
Throughout his tenure, Sarver has been known as a thrifty — and sometimes combative — owner who struggled to put winning teams on the court after the initial success of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, who reached the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006. Phoenix missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons from 2011 to 2020 as Sarver cycled through coaches, hired and fired executives and repeatedly struck out in the NBA draft. During one particularly tumultuous stretch, Sarver fired Coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season and then fired his full-time replacement, Igor Kokoskov, after one season.
There were plenty of misadventures along the way. In 2014, Sarver apologized to Suns fans because the San Antonio Spurs had chosen to rest several stars during a game in Phoenix. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich replied bluntly by saying that Sarver should have been wearing a “chicken suit” during his address. In 2017, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe famously tweeted “I don’t wanna be here,” a trade request that he later claimed was a reference to his boredom at a hair salon. Then, in 2019, Sarver reportedly put live goats in his general manager’s office in what was apparently a motivational tactic.
But the arrival in recent years of Coach Monty Williams and Paul brought the Suns back to the playoffs and the national stage. Phoenix reached the Finals in 2021 for the first time since 1993, and it won a franchise-record 64 games last season despite the ongoing investigation into Sarver. With a talented roster built around Paul, all-star guard Devin Booker, forward Mikal Bridges and center Deandre Ayton, the Suns enter the upcoming season as one of the West’s favorites.
The Suns issued a statement Wednesday, accepting Sarver’s decision and pledging to “create, maintain and protect a best-in-class experience” for employees.
“We acknowledge the courage of the people who came forward in this process to tell their stories and apologize to those hurt,” the statement read. “We are on a journey that began before last November, one that has included changes to leadership, staff and accountability measures. While we are proud of our progress and the culture of respect and integrity we are building, we know there remains work to do and relationships to rebuild.”
Sarver led a group that purchased the Suns for roughly $400 million in 2004, and a recent Forbes estimate pegged the franchise’s current worth at more than $1.8 billion. The sale price valuation of the Suns could exceed $2 billion, as NBA franchises have increased substantially in value in recent years and a new national media rights deal is on the horizon. After the Clippers sold for $2 billion in 2014, the Houston Rockets sold for $2.2 billion in 2017 and the Brooklyn Nets sold with the Barclays Center arena for $3.3 billion in 2019. Since 2020, smaller-market franchises such as the Utah Jazz ($1.6 billion) and Minnesota Timberwolves ($1.5 billion) produced lucrative returns for their longtime owners.