After 18 years as the owner of the Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver left his mark on many in the NBA.
Some are weird, like when he put a herd of goats in his CEO’s office. Some of them are repulsive, such as his racially insensitive language and treatment of employees, which were detailed in an NBA investigation that ended last week. Some are perplexed, such as when other NBA owners watched him cut his nails during a Zoom call during a board meeting amid the pandemic, sources said, when debris landed on his dark jersey.
However, the final chapter on Sarver is being written.
He announced Wednesday that he plans to sell the Suns and Phoenix Mercury. At the start of a year-long suspension, Sarver will likely soon be off the league’s radar for good.
That eases a lot of pressure when teams open training camp, where players will no doubt make their feelings known about the situation. But a final sale doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is gone.
Sarver is the third owner in the past eight years to sell a team after racially sensitive incidents became public, following Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers in 2014 and Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015.
The backlash from the players contributed to the pressure that led to the league banning Sterling for life and inviting Sarver to pitch instead of serving the league-imposed punishment.
“So proud to be a part of a league dedicated to progress!” LeBron James tweeted after Sarver’s announcement.
James and Suns star guard Chris Paul expressed his disappointment with the NBA’s initial punishment for Sarver — a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine — and called for a harsher penalty. So did NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio, who called for a lifetime ban. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, in turn, called for a vote among owners to oust Sarver to force them to pick sides.
These well-timed, well-thought-out, and strategic uses of influence, along with absconding sponsors, finally brought one of the league’s power brokers to justice. But it’s an alarming statistic that 10% of the league has now had to deal with such ugliness in less than a decade.
Sarver’s departure is a signal that tolerance for poor ownership behavior has tightened. The reactions sent a message: ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he believed Sarver’s punishment was appropriate because an overly lengthy and thorough investigation found that repeated use of the N-word did not prove racial “animus.” The players who spoke up refuted that assumption, and it’s likely that many others would have done the same when microphones were put in front of them next week.
Silver, who acts largely as a mouthpiece for the owners, said he thought the punishments were fair given “the totality of the circumstances, not just these specific allegations, but the 18 years that Mr. Sarver has owned the Suns and the Mercury.”
Even those who spoke out rejected it and made it clear: bad deeds are bad deeds – no matter how long ago they happened or what good might have come since then.
In particular, it seemed to sting Sarver, who defended himself when the initial allegations emerged, citing his philanthropic gifts and work in the community. He did it again on Wednesday, announcing that his team was for sale.
“However, in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that this is no longer possible — anything I have done or can do outweighs the things I have said in the past,” Sarver wrote.
Although he gritted his teeth, Sarver swallowed the fact that the behavior he had endured for so long had been declared unacceptable.
This is the emerging new reality, a world where almost everything has an electronic paper trail, where there is a constant threat of discovery in lawsuits, where emboldened employees are muffled by fear or non-disclosure agreements.
Is this the end of this trend? Are there others? Can the NBA, now seen as having productive labor talks between players and owners, recover from this painful episode?
These questions remain unanswered at this time. But it is they who sit behind the brilliance of the response to Sarver’s death. And that unknown is unnerving for the league’s highest level.
“I’d love to say we’ve turned a corner,” Silver said last week. “We obviously don’t.”