Suns owner Sarver suspended 1 year, fined $10M

Sports

Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been suspended one year and fined $10 million by the NBA as a result of an investigation into the Suns franchise.

The NBA announced the punishment Tuesday, saying the investigation found that during his time with the Suns and Mercury, Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.”

There also were “instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees,” the NBA said in its statement, including “sex-related comments” and inappropriate comments on employees’ appearances.

The NBA commissioned an investigation after ESPN published a story in November 2021 detailing allegations of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s 17 years as owner.

While the NBA stated that Sarver “cooperated fully with the investigative process,” league sources told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Adrian Wojnarowski that he was unaccepting of the idea that he deserved a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine for his behavior. The punitive part of the process became largely acrimonious, sources said.

The investigation, led by New York-based law firm Wachtell Lipton, found that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies.”

“While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees,” Sarver said in a statement through the Suns. “I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values.

“I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”

The Suns said in a statement that they are “committed to creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment.” They added that “at the direction of senior leadership,” they have “strengthened” their culture and “focused on creating a workplace where everyone feels included and valued.”

The investigation included interviews with more than 320 current and former employees as well as Sarver, the NBA announced. It also examined more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos. The report was made publicly available online.

“It’s barely a slap on the wrist and shows us the league truly doesn’t stand for diversity, equity or inclusion,” a former staffer who spoke to ESPN for the initial 2021 story told ESPN. “I’m grateful to have the validation after being told I was insane, a b—- and being dramatic. That definitely lets me breathe a little.

“But I’m angry. The league failed us when they had the opportunity to stand behind its values.”

A current staffer, who also spoke to ESPN for the initial report, said, “I am so f—ing mad. So are many others.”

During Sarver’s tenure, the investigation found that he:

  • On at least five occasions “repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.”

  • “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.”

  • “Engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including by yelling and cursing at them.”

The release noted that the investigation “made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”

The Suns granted access to human resources records and thousands of internal emails, the sources said. Specialists from Deloitte, a global accounting firm headquartered in London, and from Kirkland & Ellis, a Chicago-based law firm, were also involved in the investigation.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement, “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing. 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.”

Silver continued, “I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.”

The $10 million fine is the maximum permitted by the NBA, and the funds will be donated to organizations “addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace.”

During his suspension, Sarver may not:

  • “Be present at any NBA or WNBA team facility, including any office, arena, or practice facility.”

  • “Attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices, or business partner activity.”

  • “Represent the Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity.”

  • “Have any involvement with the business or basketball operations of the Suns or Mercury.”

  • “Have any involvement in the business, governance, or activities of either the NBA or WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of either league’s Board (and their associated Board committees).”

Sarver must also complete a training program focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.

The Suns and Mercury organization must also fulfill a series of requirements for workplace improvements set forth and monitored by the NBA. These requirements include:

  • “Retaining an outside firm to evaluate and make recommendations with respect to workplace training programs, policies and procedures, and hiring and compensation practices — with a focus on fostering a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace.”

  • “Conducting regular and anonymous workplace culture surveys and responding to survey results with specific action plans.”

  • “Immediately reporting to the league any instances or allegations of significant misconduct by any employee.”

  • “For a period of three years, providing the league with regular reports related to steps taken by the organization to address these requirements.”

  • “Following league direction for remediation/improvement of workplace issues if/as they arise.”

In interviews with the Wachtell Lipton lawyers, most of which were conducted in person, over the phone and via videoconferencing, Suns employees confirmed a range of allegations published in ESPN’s November story, introduced others and provided documents, including emails.

The investigation also substantiated instances of “workplace misconduct engaged in by Suns employees that were not directly related to Sarver and a lack of proper organizational policies and controls.” It found instances of “racial insensitivity, mistreatment of female employees, inappropriate commentary related to sex or sexual orientation, and disrespectful communications.”

It also found that the team’s human resources department was “historically ineffective and not a trusted resource for employees who were subjected to acts of improper workplace conduct.”

The league’s investigation marked the third of its kind centered on a team owner since Silver became the NBA commissioner in 2014 — with all three cases being led by Wachtell Lipton.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski contributed to this report.

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