What the NFL Can Learn From the NBA’s Suspension of Suns and Mercury Owner Robert Sarver





On September 13, 2022, the National Basketball Association released a statement announcing the suspension of Sun’s majority owner Robert Sarver. The NBA's statement stemmed from an internal investigation following an ESPN article published in November 2021. The law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz acted as the independent party conducting the investigation. The investigation included interviewing current and former employees as well as the evaluation of documents including text messages, emails, and videos.


The report stated that Mr. Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and League rules and policies. This 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.”


The statement released by the NBA outlined the key findings from the investigation as follows:

Mr. Sarver, on at least five occasions during his tenure with the Suns/Mercury organization, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.


Mr. Sarver engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees. Mr. Sarver engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including yelling and cursing at them.


The statement from the NBA describes the consequences of these findings. The first consequence is that Sarver will be suspended from organizational activities for a period of one year. Alongside this suspension, the NBA stated that Sarver will complete a training program that they state is “focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.” The second consequence is that Sarver will be fined $10 million. The NBA will send that money to organizations that address “race and gender-based issues in and outside of the workplace.”


The statement concluded with quotes from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver summarizing the NBA’s position on the matter. “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances, and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.


“I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect, and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power, or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.”


Finally, and maybe most importantly for the NBA regarding transparency, the NBA included a link to the full 43-page report compiled by David Anders and Sarah Eddy, the partners leading the investigation.


This statement highlights a big difference between the NBA and the NFL. Both the NFL and NBA have had controversies surrounding an owner of a team in their respective leagues. However, one league has demonstrated complete transparency. The other league, however, has been investigated by Congress regarding its handling of the investigation into its owner. Those who follow both know which one is which.


The NBA has been a model for transparency since Adam Silver took the helm as Commissioner in 2014. While people may not be happy with how harshly the NBA handled Sarver. The transparency of the NBA allows those comments. The 43-page report goes into the process and findings following the investigation in more depth than the NBA's statement. The transparency also allows the NBA to handle questions and point to a document that can justify their choices in punishment.


The NFL has shown that they are doing almost the exact opposite when it comes to the investigation and punishment of their owners. The NFL has refused to release a full report of its investigation into the Washington Commander’s owner, Dan Snyder. They have been so secretive with the report surrounding its investigation that Congress had to step in. Congress initiated its own investigation which included a voluntary appearance by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the issuance of a subpoena to Dan Snyder. Snyder has since refused to comply with the subpoena. The report remains a secret.


This story and its comparison to the NFL’s handling of Dan Snyder reminds me of one lesson I learned in my Sports Law class in law school. Adam Silver, a lawyer, heads the NBA, and Roger Goodell, a businessman, heads the NFL. This difference in professional background could be one reason we see a difference in how the NBA and NFL handled their respective investigations. The NFL could learn many lessons including transparency and promptness following this statement from the NBA.


Justin Mader is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law where he earned a J.D. and a Sports and Entertainment Law Certificate. He can be reached via Twitter: @maderlaw and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/justin-mader-15a602119/.