Is the NBA’s punishment of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver enough?

A small measure of justice finally caught up Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. The NBA on Tuesday fined Sarver $10 million and suspended him from those leagues for a year after an investigation conducted by a New York-based law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, found that Sarver committed racist and sexist behavior in the workplace.

Unlike the NFL, for example, the NBA does a pretty good job of disciplining its owners.

The NBA initiated its investigation after a 2021 ESPN story reported that Sarver’s workplace misconduct consisted of his use of racist and misogynistic language. The NBA investigation concluded that Sarver was guilty of racial and sexist misconduct.

Unlike the NFL, for example, the NBA does a pretty good job of disciplining its owners. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement Tuesday that said, “Regardless of position, power, or intent, we must all acknowledge the corrosive and hurtful effects of racially insensitive and degrading language and behavior.”

Sarver offered an apology on Tuesday. “Good leadership requires accountability. For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that starts with me,” he said in a statement. “While I disagree with some of the details of the NBA report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that have offended our staff. I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain and judging these mistakes do not align with my personal philosophy or values.”

He said the Suns and Mercury organizations value diversity and inclusion.

The NBA is right to fine Sarver, but we shouldn’t welcome the punishment without asking whether a year-long ban and a $10 million fine — for a man believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars – enough. The same league almost a decade ago forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after his racist remarks were caught on tape. (Admittedly, Sterling’s sacking came after players from the Clippers and Warriors threatened to boycott their next playoff game.) Sarver’s investigation found that he had said the N-word at least five times when recounting what others said had.

“The statements and behavior described in the findings of the independent investigation are worrying and disappointing,” Silver said in his statement. “We believe the result is the right one, considering all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light through the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding appropriate standards in the NBA workplace.”

Silver also said, “On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to everyone affected by the wrongdoing described in the investigator’s report. We have to do better.”

Washington Commanders franchisee Dan Snyder was caught up in a whirlwind of controversy while overseeing an allegedly sexist and harassed workplace.

It’s thanks to the NBA that the league is actually disciplining those in the ownership community. In other leagues, the commissioner is not necessarily someone who is above the sport and looking after the best interests of the league, but often someone who looks after the best interests of the owners. Such commissars are flak catchers, human flesh shields protecting owners from the press.

Think of the National Football League and their Owners Gone Wild collection. Think about how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell frowns and gets pelted by the media in times of crisis, but does little else. He’s paid $64 million a year to do as he’s told and take the Heat.

In 2014, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was charged with a driving ban. He later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and told a judge he was under the influence of oxycodone and hydrocodone when he was arrested. Goodell had suspended players left and right for misconduct, however Irsay’s six-game ban came only after significant pressure was placed on Goodell to remain consistent.

Washington Commanders franchise owner Dan Snyder has been embroiled in a maelstrom of controversy over his oversight of an allegedly sexist and harassed workplace, which actually took place caught the attention of Congress. He was fined, but Snyder’s real “punishment” was that he handed day-to-day running of the franchise to his wife, Tanya Snyder.

At best, Goodell offers PR punishment from a vertically authoritarian league in which the franchise owners all stare at Goodell and occasionally spit on his head.

While it seems true that Silver has a moral compass that Goodell lacks, the discrepancy between the NBA forcing Sterling to sell and Sarver’s year-long suspension cannot be ignored. Sterling’s racist remarks were caught on tape. Perhaps that’s the difference: Registered crimes always trigger more outrage than witnessed ones. But why would Sarver be allowed to return to the NBA and WNBA?

The difference between the NBA forcing Sterling to sell and Sarver’s year-long suspension cannot be ignored.

Like Sterling, no one should be surprised that Sarver is coming out as that type of person. In the 18 years that Sarver has owned the teams, I’ve heard other people in the sports world and sports media talk about Sarver’s awfulness. It shouldn’t have taken ESPN to force the league into action, just as it didn’t need a leaked tape for the league to finally rid itself of Sterling.

These leagues are built on black talent, black minds and black bodies. How is Sarver supposed to come back and act as an authority figure? The NBA and Silver don’t want to appear like they’re forcing an owner to sell their franchise. But if the owner of a fast-food franchise were found to treat their employees in this way, would corporate headquarters tolerate it? Likewise, Sarver should no longer be tolerated by the NBA. Credit to Silver for doing something. But he should have done more than slap Sarver on the wrist.

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