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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

With a slap on the wrist for Robert Sarver, Adam Silver and the NBA caved instead of standing strong

The NBA had a chance to levy a real punishment on Suns owner Robert Sarver (center), but they backed down instead.Ralph Freso/Associated Press

In his first major decision as commissioner eight years ago, Adam Silver stripped racist Donald Sterling of control of the Los Angeles Clippers and banished one of the worst owners in professional sports history.

It was a daring ruling, barring the frugal owner who once sued 68-year-old Bill Fitch for not seeking another NBA head coaching job because he did not want to pay off his contract.

Tuesday’s league decision on Phoenix governor Robert Sarver, who was subjected to a one-year investigation into years of reported racist, sexist, misogynistic, and otherwise offensive comments, was just as stunning — but hardly a reason for Silver to receive any adulation for his stance.


Sarver received a one-year suspension and $10 million fine for his actions, as the NBA released a series of disturbing details of Sarver’s actions over an 18-year period that revealed a man who used his status to intimidate employees and a warped sense of humor to make repugnant jokes and assessments of his staff.

For a league that claims to be so progressive, so inclusive and accepting, it’s obvious they wanted no part of the potential legal repercussions had Sarver been forced to sell the Suns. The NBA seems scared of Sarver, who denied many of these claims and also attributed his comments to having a playful sense of humor.

According to the NBA investigation, Sarver said the N-word at least on five occasions “when recounting the statements of others.”

Sarver, according to the NBA, “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.”

And finally, Sarver “engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including by yelling and cursing at them.”


Sarver was investigated for years of reported racist, sexist, misogynistic, and otherwise offensive comments.Ralph Freso/Associated Press

So not only was Sarver a verbally abusive rich boss – not really surprising – but he demoralized his staff with racist and sexist comments. Sarver has been considered one of the league’s worst owners, meddling in personnel decisions, refusing to spend amongst the bigger market teams in the NBA for players, and becoming the primary reason why Phoenix, despite favorable weather and status, has never been an attractive free-agent destination.

After disposing of general manager Ryan McDonough, who constantly had to deal with Sarver’s intervention in making roster moves, the franchise has turned itself around by bringing on former player James Jones as GM and hiring coach Monty Williams. Both are Black, and perhaps that helped Sarver’s argument that he wasn’t as racist as is perceived.

The league’s independent investigative teams of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz released a 40-page report filled with findings that Sarver made not only racist and sexist comments but uncomfortable sexual references to players about their wives and even comments about his own genitalia.

It’s a laundry list of offenses, yet the NBA decided one year away was enough. There are theories as to why the league took such a soft approach with Sarver; he won’t give up his team quietly and perhaps he has secrets and unshared stories about fellow NBA governors.

Perhaps the NBA doesn’t want the legal battle that Sarver would certainly pursue. Or maybe since the Sterling offenses were recorded and clearly heard, his transgressions were easier to punish. All of these reasons are flimsy and completely contradict the league’s apparent campaign to encourage diversity and inclusion.


“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In no other workplace besides a professional sports franchise could a company leader conduct himself in this fashion and remain unscathed – besides a relatively minor fine for a man of his wealth. Sarver has also had the past 12 months to help change the perception and reputation of his franchise.

In June, Morgan Cato became the first Black woman to become assistant general manager of an NBA franchise when Sarver hired her. Also, Williams has supported Sarver since the investigation, telling reporters he hasn’t been subject to any offensive comments by the governor.

This is not the Donald Sterling situation. Sterling was considered a terrible owner who was despised by many of his former players and coaches. He was also accused of being a slumlord and has faced multiple lawsuits from tenants in his many Southern California properties.

The recorded tapes were the final straw after years of mismanagement of the franchise. The Sarver investigation, in the NBA’s statement, “made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”

So Sarver articulated racially offensive remarks, uttered sexist statements and made offensive innuendos but he’s not a racist or sexist, just a really tacky rich guy.

The NBA is not filled with saints and choir boys, but the league does enforce its conduct policy on these players, and the National Basketball Players Association will certainly take note of how lightly the league penalized Sarver at the next collective bargaining agreement.


Think of the dozens of team employees over Sarver’s tenure who bolted because of this treatment, or the psychological damage levied by critical statements he made about their appearance. The report states that he once encouraged a female employee to lose her baby weight.

If the investigators did not have a litany of information, they would not have released a 40-page report with 17 pages of findings about questionable Sarver conduct and another 10 about general workplace misconduct by employees.

But Sarver also countered with a list of philanthropic actions and acts of diversity and inclusion that helped his case. It’s a confounding issue, and one the NBA wanted nothing to do with because of the embarrassing nature and likely Sarver’s power, so they caved.

The penalty should have been harsher. Silver should have issued more than an apology and expressed disappointment. But it’s obvious Sarver posed a bigger threat than Sterling, so he remains in the exclusive fraternity.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.