In 2021, ESPN analyst Baxter Holmes wrote an article alleging that Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury, and RCD Mallorca, created an environment of racism, misogyny and sexual harassment in the front office of the Suns. The National Basketball Association announced an investigation into the matter, and recently deemed that Sarver be fined $10 million and be suspended for one year for his role in creating a toxic workplace environment for the Suns.
Sarver was born in Tucson, Arizona, and made his fortune through his real-estate development company, Southwest Value Partners. Sarver purchased the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in 2004 for around $401 million. Sarver’s tenure has not been the smoothest so far, as the team’s performance struggled for years on end. However, with the addition of legendary point guard Chris Paul along with All-Star guard Devin Booker, the Suns were able to make the NBA Finals last year, ultimately losing to the Miluwakee Bucks.
Many prominent basketball players and owners are calling for Sarver’s immediate resignation, or that Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, should permanently ban Sarver for his behavior. Lebron James, one of the most well-known players in the NBA, went on Twitter to show his dismay for the “lenient suspension” that was given to Sarver. He wrote, “I deeply love this league, and deeply respect our leadership, but this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in our workplace.”
Many people have referred to the Donald Sterling scandal as precedent to ban Sarver. In 2014, Sterling was ousted in his role as majority owner of the Los Angeles Clippers after a video recording surfaced of him making racist remarks about Black people and how he does not like seeing them at the Clippers games. Sterling was banned indefinitely from all NBA games, fined $2.5 million, and forced to sell the LA Clippers.
There are multiple accounts of Sarver using the N-word, even when told by his staff that he should not be using racist epithets. There are also accounts of him sexually harassing and assaulting several female and male employees. The NBA released its findings to the public, and among other details, it also states that Sarver often uses a “harsh and demeaning behavior towards his employees, including yelling and cursing at them.” This behavior demonstrated by Sarver also resulted in the “occasional bullying.” The report also revealed instances of the “mistreatment of female employees, [and] inappropriate commentary related to sex or sexual orientation.”
The Sarver and Sterling scandals are somewhat similar but are also different in many ways. The primary reason that Sarver is able to keep the Phoenix Suns and was not forced to sell is that there is no hard evidence of Sarver saying the things that he is accused of. In contrast, Sterling was recorded when he told his mistress that he does not like it when “she associates with those kinds of people” in reference to Black spectators at games. Sarver essentially got off with a slap on the wrist because it is just one person’s word against another.
However, there were at least 320 employees that were interviewed for this case, and after speaking to all of them, the NBA decided to impose the fine and temporary suspension. One of the Sun’s primary sponsors, PayPal, released a statement condemning Sarver’s behavior and “threaten[ed] to pull their sponsorship if Sarver remains in charge.” Everyone is calling for Sarver to resign, including Sun’s minority owner, Jahm Najafi, but whether or not Sarver will face more severe punishment is yet to be determined.