NBA Commissioner Defends Sarver’s Suspension for Misconduct

NBA Commissioner Defends Sarver’s Suspension for Misconduct

N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday defended the one-year suspension and $10 million fine assessed to Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, who was found after an independent investigation to have mistreated employees over more than a decade.

Despite calls for harsher penalties, Silver said the suspension and fine were fair punishments for Sarver’s misconduct, which included using racial slurs, yelling at employees and treating female employees unfairly, according to the report. Silver said he had not talked to Sarver about his voluntarily selling his team because of his behavior, nor had the league’s board of governors discussed terminating Sarver’s ownership.

“From a personal standpoint, I was in disbelief to a certain extent about what I learned that had transpired over the last 18 years in the Suns organization,” Silver said. “I was saddened by it, disheartened. I want to again apologize to the former, and in some cases current, employees of the Phoenix Suns for what they had to experience. There is absolutely no excuse for it. And we addressed it.”

Sarver is also the majority owner of the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury.

Silver spoke to reporters one day after the league released a 43-page report from the New York-based law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz that detailed Sarver’s repeated use of racial slurs, mistreatment of employees, bullying and unfair treatment of female employees over nearly two decades as the owner of the Suns and the Mercury. Silver said the investigative group was diverse in race and gender, but he was unsure of the demographic breakdown. The law firm reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed hundreds of current and former employees.

Chris Paul, the Suns’ All-Star point guard, said in a post on Twitter late Wednesday that he was “horrified and disappointed” by the actions outlined in the report.

“This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated,” he said. “I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior. My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected.”

Silver used the firm’s findings to determine what punishment Sarver deserved. He meted out the maximum fine allowable by the league’s constitution, but not the longest suspension.

“I had the option to go longer,” Silver said. “I landed on one year. I will say it’s the second-longest suspension in the history of our league, just to put it in some sort of context.”

The harshest penalty the league has ever levied on a team owner came in 2014 when Donald Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was barred for life after he made racist remarks about Black people in a private conversation and a recording of his comments was made public.

At the time, Silver said the punishment was based solely on that one incident, and that he would recommend that the board of governors vote to terminate Sterling’s ownership. Ultimately, though, Rochelle Sterling sold the team, despite her husband’s efforts to prevent her from doing so.

Asked why he did not go as far with Sarver, Silver called Donald Sterling’s and Sarver’s situations “dramatically different.”

“What we saw in the case of Donald Sterling was blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people,” Silver said.

When it came to Sarver, Silver said, the “totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he’s owned these teams” didn’t warrant the same punishment.

Later Wednesday, LeBron James wrote on Twitter, “I gotta be honest … Our league definitely got this wrong.”

James, who stars for the Los Angeles Lakers, continued: “I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any work place. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team. We hold our league up as an example of our values and this aint it.”

Silver said he had heard from players in the last 24 hours but would allow them to speak for themselves.

“It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way,” Silver said of Sarver’s behavior. But he added: “Remember, while there were these terrible things, there were also many, many people who had very positive things to say about him through this process.”

Despite detailing several instances in which Sarver made women and Black people feel demeaned, the investigators said they did not find that Sarver’s actions were motivated by “racial or gender-based animus.”

Silver paused when asked if he agreed with that assessment.

“I accept their work,” Silver said. “To follow what we believe is appropriate process here, to bring in a law firm, to have them spend essentially nine months on this, to do the extensive kinds of interviews they can, I’m not able to put myself in their shoes. I respect the work they’ve done, we’ve done.”

The public report did not explain how the investigators determined that Sarver’s actions were not motivated by racial or gender-based animus, but Silver said that the report represented only part of the findings. He said he was given more information, but to protect the privacy of those who had participated in the investigation he could not reveal more.

“Let me reiterate: The conduct is indefensible,” Silver said. “But I feel we dealt with it in a fair manner, both taking into account the totality of the circumstances, not just those particular allegations but the 18 years in which Mr. Sarver has owned the Suns and the Mercury.”

Silver was speaking after a meeting of the league’s board of governors in Manhattan. The board typically meets three times a year, including once before the start of the regular season. This week’s meeting lasted three days and included discussion about the investigation.

When asked about the discrepancy between how Sarver is being treated, in being allowed to remain an N.B.A. owner, and how employees of most companies would be treated had they behaved similarly, Silver pointed to a different standard for team owners.

“There’s no neat answer here, other than owning property, the rights that come with owning an N.B.A. team, how that’s set up within our constitution, what it would take to remove that team from his control is a very involved process, and it’s different than holding a job,” Silver said. “It just is, when you actually own a team. It’s just a very different proposition.”

When asked what standards he would expect league owners to meet, Silver said each case must be considered individually.

Silver made references to Sarver’s misconduct having been part of his past, and spoke of the positive changes he felt had been made in the Suns organization. But many of the incidents confirmed by investigators happened recently. For example, the report found an incident of Sarver making inappropriate sexual remarks in 2021, and one of the instances in which investigators confirmed that Sarver had used a racial slur occurred in 2016.

Although the investigation has closed, Silver said this will not be the end of the league’s concern about Sarver’s actions.

“In terms of future behavior, he’s on notice,” Silver said. “He knows that.”

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