Just over a week after the National Basketball Association (NBA) announced a one-year suspension and $10 million fine as a result of its investigation, Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver will sell both franchises. The decision to sell the franchises comes after athletes, including LeBron James, other Suns owners, and sponsors, including PayPal, voiced their displeasure with the NBA’s punishment.
Sarver, who owns 35% of the Suns, led an ownership group that purchased the Suns in 2004. Last year, after ESPN released a story detailing allegations of racism and misogyny within the Suns organization, the NBA announced an investigation into the Sarver and the Suns.
The NBA hired the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to act as independent investigators. The investigators interviewed Sarver and over 300 individuals and reviewed tens of thousands of documents.
On September 13, 2022, the independent investigators, members of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, released their report, including details of racism and misogyny within the organization. Specifically, “conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”
Two important Bases For Commissioner Silver’s Determination
First, the Suns have a policy in place that prohibits harassment on the basis of “race, color, national origin, religion, sex (with or without sexual conduct) . . . .” The policy later notes specific conduct that is prohibited, including “sexually tainted jokes or comments” and “the use of slurs, epithets, or gestures related to an individual’s protected characteristic.”
Second, pursuant to the NBA’s Constitution, Sarver is prohibited from “conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the association.” Further, the Constitution grants Commissioner Silver the power to investigate such conduct and impose appropriate penalties. Therefore, the investigators found that Sarver’s statements and conduct were “contrary to common workplace standards, as reflected in the Suns’ Workplace Policy and the NBA Constitution.
Thus, after finding Sarver’s conduct “troubling and disappointing,” Commissioner Silver decided to impose the maximum monetary penalty, $10 million, a one-year suspension, and require Sarver to complete a training program on workplace conduct.
Sarver’s punishment forced a reaction across the league, with many feeling that the punishment was too light. In 2014, the NBA instituted a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after recordings revealed Sterling using racial slurs. This time, NBA owners did not push for Sarver’s removal; instead, waiting for others to pressure Suns’ leadership to oust Sarver.
With Sarver announcing that he is moving forward with selling the franchises, it appears that the public pressure has worked. With an estimated value of $1.8 billion, the Suns will be a sought-after commodity if they hit the open market. Either way, the NBA’s player-led advocacy gets another victory.