NEW YORK – After two days of what Commissioner Adam Silver characterized as “very productive” Board of Governors meetings that concluded Wednesday, there was only one topic that dominated his media availability session: The penalties imposed on Robert Sarver, governor of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury for a history of inappropriate workplace conduct and language.
The NBA announced Tuesday that Sarver had been suspended for one year from any role with either the NBA or WNBA organization, and was being fined $10 million, the maximum allowable under league by-laws.
Silver had shared his view of Sarver’s transgressions in the formal statement when announcing his decision, but a day later he expressed them again for the cameras and microphones.
Speaking of his “disbelief” and saying he was “saddened” and “disheartened,” Silver apologized anew to those on the receiving end of Sarver’s comments and actions. “There was absolutely no excuse for it,” the commissioner said. “And we addressed it.”
The penalties resulted from an independent investigation commissioned by the league into allegations — initially reported last fall by ESPN — of racism, misogyny and other unacceptable exchanges by Sarver. The New York law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz published a 36-page report looking at Sarver’s 18 years as the top executive of the Suns and Mercury.
Over the subsequent 24 hours after Tuesday’s announcement, there was criticism from both sides. Many felt the punishment was too lenient, given former Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s ban from the league in 2014 for a pattern of racist behavior. Others pointed to incidents in which players make offensive remarks with far milder repercussions than Sarver received.
Said Silver: “I reiterate how much is indefensible. But I felt we dealt with it in a fair manner, taking into account the totality of the circumstances.”
Silver drew a distinction between Sterling’s controversy, which led to him being forced to sell the franchise. In that case, Sterling had a document of racial discrimination in his real estate holdings and then was heard making racist remarks in a tape made clandestinely and released widely by Sterling’s mistress.
It was a mess dropped in Silver’s lap only weeks after he succeeded former NBA commissioner David Stern in the spring of 2014.
“This case is very different and it’s not that one was captured on tape and the other isn’t,” Silver said, noting that Sarver has acknowledged his behavior.
“It’s not really about the factual dispute here. … What is lost though is the context.”
Silver said the same law firm was involved in both investigations, and while the final report was made public to promote transparency, he also is privy to some confidential elements of the case.
Sterling, Silver said, had engaged in “blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people.”
Sarver, by contrast, was found not to have made his racial remarks with animus. He was reported, for example, to have repeated a racial slur – the “N-word” – in questioning why a Black player could say it but he could not. “That is their finding,” Silver said. “I have to make a determination.”
Accounts of Sarver’s bullying tactics, including graphic comments in business meetings and remarks belittling women employees, made the seriousness of his transgressions clear. “Indefensible is not strong enough – it’s beyond the pale in every possible way – but it was a whole different context than what we saw in that earlier case,” the commissioner said.
Silver also factored in the time frame across which Sarver’s behavior occurred – dating back to his purchase of the Suns – and both the changing tolerance now vs. then and his history as governor.
“Looking back over his track record of hiring, his track record of support for particular employees, what the actual people said about him – while there were terrible things – there were also many, many people who had very positive things to say about him through this process,” Silver said. “I took all of that into account.”
Silver didn’t dispute one reporter’s suggestion that most people who behaved in similar fashion would get fired from their jobs. The question then was, why was Sarver not essentially fired from his?
“There are particular rights here, somebody who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who’s an employee,” the commissioner said. “The equivalent of a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension, I don’t know how to measure that against a job.”
Silver added: “I don’t have the right to take away his team.”
Keep in mind, there are 29 other members of the Board of Governors who have their opinions on how and why they might be forced to give up their franchises. The legal wrangling would be different in each case.
“But to me, the consequences are severe,” Silver said.
“Through my several decades now with the league, we’ve tried at every opportunity to improve the environment around the teams, around the league office for that matter,” Silver said.
In 2018, the NBA set up an anonymous hotline across all 30 teams for employees to report inappropriate workplace activity. They became more focused on diversity and inclusion and how that was reflected in hiring practices.
“I believe we’ve seen significant improvement over the years,” Silver said. “I believe even in the case of the Phoenix Suns, looking back over the 18 years, to a certain extent you can see the evolution of how things have improved around the league.”
The job is not finished, however, as evidenced by the investigation and its findings.
“I’d love to say we’ve turned the corner,” Silver said. “We clearly haven’t. … It’s my hope at least that part of what we can learn from all this is that [if] there are employees anywhere at a team or at the league office that feel that they are being treated improperly or in a discriminatory fashion, that they know there are outlets and they will be heard and they will be taken seriously.”
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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