A chorus of disapproval is rippling across Black communities and NBA players after the professional basketball league’s commissioner appeared to defend what he called “indefensible” racist and sexist offenses by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, who critics have said received a lenient punishment for his documented offenses.
Among those condemning Adam Silver’s purported discipline for Sarver — who is seemingly guaranteed to keep his job despite being found guilty of using the N-word in the workplace multiple times as well as “instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees” over his 18-year tenure — are the face of the league, LeBron James, Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul, as well as influential civil rights leaders who previously credited the NBA commissioner’s efforts on social justice.
On Wednesday, Silver appeared to make excuses why Sarver was only suspended for a year instead of being removed from his ownership like what happened to the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who found himself in a similarly racist situation in 2014. When asked directly about the difference between Sarver and Donald Sterling — who was captured on tape going on a racist rant against Black people after his Black Hispanic girlfriend posted pictures of herself and Black people on Instagram — Silver said the Suns owner’s racism was “wholly of a different kind.”
Sterling’s racism, Silver explained, was “blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people,” even though the NBA’s own report this week found that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and League rules and policies. This conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”
Is that not also “a select group of people”?
The mixed messages continued as Silver said he could have suspended Sarver for longer while also insisting “the NBA came down on him as hard as they could.”
Silver’s press conference on Wednesday was at once confusing and offensive, critics in and outside of the NBA said.
“Trying to explain away the light punishment on Robert Sarver greatly misses the mark,” Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder and President of the National Action Network, said in a statement emailed to NewsOne. “Nobody can evolve from being a bigot.”
Doubling down on his rhetoric from a day earlier, Sharpton called Sarver’s punishment a relative slap on the wrist, all things considered.
“This one-year suspension is a band aid on a tumor,” Sharpton added. “To say it is in remission while it grows will only make the entire league sicker.”
He called for the NBA to remove Sarver like it did Sterling to demonstrate “that hate has no place in American sports. It’s time for the players, the fans, and the corporate sponsors to rise up and demand that Robert Sarver be immediately removed from the NBA.”
James, who still holds a great deal of power and influence in the NBA entering his 20th season, didn’t go quite as far as Sharpton in calling for Sarver’s removal. However, “The King” did say the NBA clearly fumbled on punishing Sarver.
“I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right,” James tweeted on Wednesday. “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.”
Paul, another veteran NBA star and future Hall of Famer who previously served as the president of the National Basketball Players Association, starred for the Clippers when Sterling was removed. It was in that context that he reacted to the “shameful” punishment handed down to Sarver. However, like James, there was no call from Paul for Sarver’s removal. Notably, neither star offered alternatives to Sarver’s punishment from the NBA.
“I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior,” Paul tweeted Wednesday night. “My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected.”
The comments from James and Paul came as much of the rest of the league remained silent.
They also came on the heels of NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson not parsing his words after learning of the NBA punishment for Sarver.
“Fining a Billionaire $10M is nothing but a speeding ticket,” Johnson tweeted Tuesday. “They have failed to adequately address his history of racism, sexism, and years nourishing a toxic culture. This is far from accountability.”
The NBA commissioned the New York-based law firm Wachtell Lipton to conduct an investigation into Sarver and found he made several “sex-related comments” to female staffers, some of which were “inappropriate” remarks about their appearances.
He also used harsh and demeaning language toward employees during his reign over The Suns. Officials from the law firm said that Sarver “clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies.”
More than 320 current and former staffers were interviewed for the investigation. NBA officials also examined over 80,000 documents tied to Sarver including emails, text messages, and videos, the report, which was made public, noted.
Robert Sarver fully cooperated with the investigation, but according to a statement released through The Suns, the businessman said he disagreed “with some of the particulars of the NBA report.”
“I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees. 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,” the statement read.
“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,” Sarver added.
Under his suspension, Sarver will no longer be able to attend NBA games or related activities. He must also step down from his ownership role, as he will no longer be able to “represent the Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity,” during the year-long suspension period.
One former Suns staffer told ESPN that they felt the punishment wasn’t enough.
“It’s barely a slap on the wrist and shows us the league truly doesn’t stand for diversity equity or inclusion. 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.”
In ESPN’s scathing report last year, former Suns employees accused the franchise owner of creating a toxic and hostile work environment. According to staffers, on one occasion, Sarver allegedly passed around a picture of his wife in a bikini gloating about the times he engaged in oral sex with his spouse. Some claimed the businessman treated employees as if they were property.
“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” a Suns co-owner told ESPN about Sarver at the time. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”
Former Suns head coach Earl Watson also accused Sarver of using the N-word in the locker room during a game against the Golden State Warriors, but Sarver vehemently denied the claim. He did however acknowledge using the word many years ago, “on one occasion” where “a player used the N-word to describe the importance of having each other’s back.”
Sarver said he “responded by saying, ‘I wouldn’t say n—a, I would say that we’re in the foxhole together.” But an assistant coach later informed him that it was inappropriate to repeat the word, even if he was “quoting someone else.” Sarver said he later apologized for the mistake.