Phoenix Suns Owner Robert Sarver Receives One-Year Suspension by NBA

Ross D. Franklin

Following an independent investigation commissioned by the NBA, the league has suspended Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for a year. The suspension results from racist and misogynistic language, along with bullying behavior by Sarver and within the Suns organization.

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The report by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz details multiple instances of Sarver behaving badly. From the report:

The investigation finds that, during his 18-year tenure as Governor of the Suns organization, Sarver has 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. The conduct was consistent over the period—of those interviewed, over 100 individuals witnessed Sarver’s statements or actions that violated applicable standards. And the conduct had a substantial impact on employees, with some witnesses describing their experiences with Sarver in emotional and forceful terms.

As set forth in more detail below, during the period:

  • Sarver said the N-word at least five times in repeating or purporting to repeat what a Black person said—four of those after being told by both Black and white subordinates that he should not use the word, even in repetition of another.
  • Sarver used language and engaged in conduct demeaning of female employees. Among other examples, he told a pregnant employee that she would be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother; berated a female employee in front of others and then commented that women cry too much; and arranged an all-female lunch so that female employees at Western Alliance Bank, where at the time he was CEO, could explain to female Suns employees how to handle his demands.
  • Sarver commented and made jokes frequently to employees in large and small settings about sex and sex-related anatomy, including by making crude or otherwise inappropriate comments about the physical appearance and bodies of female employees and other women. On four occasions, Sarver engaged in workplace-inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.
  • Over 50 current and former employees reported that Sarver frequently engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees—including by yelling and cursing at them—that on occasion constituted bullying under workplace standards.
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Yeah, you don’t do that.

That said, Sarver’s actions don’t always jibe with his words.

Sarver told investigators that he has made substantial personal and professional contributions to social and racial justice causes and that he has been consistently committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among other things cited by Sarver:

  • No other team in the NBA employed a higher percentage of people of color in basketball operations (55%) than the Phoenix Suns organization.
  • Sarver has demonstrated his commitment to the development and advancement of women in sports through his investment in, and continued support of, the Phoenix Mercury.
  • In 2010, Sarver spoke out publicly against Arizona’s SB 1070—a state law authorizing law enforcement personnel to ask about the immigration status of certain persons lawfully detained—on the ground that it would have a racially disparate impact.
  • Sarver has served on the board of the National Police Foundation’s Council on Policing Reforms and Race.
  • Under Sarver’s leadership, the Suns, Phoenix Suns Charities, and the Penny and Robert Sarver Charitable Foundation have each given millions of dollars in donations to local nonprofit organizations.
  • Sarver created the “Suns Central” initiative, which has donated over 200,000 hours of tutoring and free ACT test prep to an Arizona high school located in an underserved community.

Witnesses also had positive things to say about Sarver and their experiences with him.

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It sounds like Sarver is a walking contradiction. While his actions do not negate his words, they do not support them. In short, he’s a jerk with a heart. Bit of an odd combination, but human beings are often complicated critters.

We are dealing with lawyers here; thus, the report must find a pound of flesh … or at least a way to worm out of admitting Sarver isn’t the second coming of Donald Sterling.

While these witness reports and the submission received from Sarver’s counsel were informative, they were not directly relevant to the investigators’ task. The investigation did not purport to undertake a comprehensive assessment of Sarver’s views and conduct on all matters touching race, sex, and gender. Instead, the investigation sought to gather facts to determine whether, in his workplace dealings with Suns personnel, Sarver engaged in conduct contrary to standards applicable to him as Governor of the Suns organization.

It is ironic that the Suns head coach, Monty Williams, is one of the, if not the most gentlemanly individuals in all professional sports, let alone the NBA. His eulogy for his first wife, killed in a 2016 car accident caused by a wrong-way driver, is a moving tribute to love and an unshakable faith in Christ. While self-righteous sportswriters can and will scream that Sarver should be drawn and quartered, the wise will wait until Williams speaks up.

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