Suns owner Robert Sarver suspended 1 year, fined $10 million following workplace misconduct investigation
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) — The NBA has suspended Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury owner Robert Sarver for one year, plus fined him $10 million after an investigation found that he had engaged in what the league called “workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies.”
The findings of the league’s report, published Tuesday, came nearly a year after the NBA asked a law firm to investigate allegations that Sarver had a history of racist, misogynistic and hostile incidents over his nearly two-decade tenure overseeing the franchise. Sarver said he will “accept the consequences of the league’s decision” and apologized for “words and actions that offended our employees,” though noted he disagreed with some of the report’s findings.
The report said Sarver “repeated or purported to repeat the N-word on at least five occasions spanning his tenure with the Suns,” though added that the investigation ”makes no finding that Sarver used this racially insensitive language with the intent to demean or denigrate.” The study also concluded that Sarver used demeaning language toward female employees, including telling a pregnant employee that she would not be able to do her job after becoming a mother; made off-color comments and jokes about sex and anatomy; and yelled and cursed at employees in ways that would be considered bullying “under workplace standards.”
About two hours after the report came out, Sarver said he was sorry in a statement but said the NBA proved that no improper conduct was done with ill intent.
The Suns organization also released a statement saying that “meaningful enhancements” had been made in recent years.
Since the investigation began, the report says that 320 people have been interviewed, made up of 202 current employees, including senior team executives, 100 former employees, 12 Suns minority owners and Sarver. Follow-up interviews were conducted with some witnesses. Investigators also reviewed over 80,000 pages of email, text messages and other documents.
As part of the suspension, Sarver cannot be present at any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including facilities. He’s also not allowed to represent the Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity. In addition to the fine, Sarver also has to complete a training program focusing on respect and appropriate workplace conduct. The league said it would donate the $10 million “to organizations that are committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace.”
While Sarver reportedly cooperated with the process, sources told NBA insiders at ESPN that he didn’t believe he deserved the one-year suspension and fine.
The league said it would donate the $10 million “to organizations that are committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace.” “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “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.”
It’s the second-largest penalty — in terms of total sanctions — ever levied by the NBA against a team owner, behind Donald Sterling being banned for life by Silver in 2014. Sterling was fined $2.5 million, the largest allowable figure at that time, and was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the massive fallout that followed him making racist comments in a recorded conversation.
The allegations against Sarver were reported by ESPN last year, which said it talked to dozens of current and former team employees for its story, including some who detailed inappropriate behavior. He originally denied or disputed most of the allegations through his legal team. On Tuesday, Sarver’s representatives said the investigation’s findings “confirmed that there was no evidence, whatsoever, to support several of the accusations in ESPN’s reporting from November 2021.”
“While it is difficult to identify with precision what motivated Sarver’s workplace behavior described in this report, certain patterns emerged from witness accounts: Sarver often acted aggressively in an apparent effort to provoke a reaction from his targets; Sarver’s sense of humor was sophomoric and inappropriate for the workplace; and Sarver behaved as though workplace norms and policies did not apply to him,” read the report from the New York-based investigating firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
Sarver, through his attorney, continued denying the allegations as recently as June in a letter to the league and insisted the claims against him were “demonstrably false.” The attorney, Thomas Clare, wrote that Sarver’s record shows a “longstanding commitment to social and racial justice” and that it attests to his “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
“Mr. Sarver is one of few NBA owners who continues to support and advance the development of women’s professional basketball,” Clare wrote, citing upgrades to the Mercury team facilities, how the Suns claim a league-best rate of 55% employment of minorities within its front office and how more than half of the Suns’ coaches and general managers in Sarver’s tenure — including current coach Monty Williams and current GM James Jones — are Black.
The full NBA report is 43 pages:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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