Amid the backlash to what many interpreted as an inadequate punishment and a slap on the wrist for Phoenix Suns governor Robert Sarver, NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a news conference Wednesday to explain how he and the league’s Board of Governors came to their decision. Many were left wondering if a one-year suspension and a $10m fine for a billionaire practically equated to about $100, a vacation and being able to return as if nothing happened. Many felt that Sarver, who also controls the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, didn’t need a timeout, but instead should have received the same fate as Donald Sterling, the disgraced former Los Angeles Clippers governor who was banned from the NBA for life.
While Silver did describe Sarver’s behavior as “indefensible” and formally apologized to the current and former employees who were the victims of Sarver’s workplace misconduct, he also maintained that Sarver’s pattern of incidents were completely different than the Donald Sterling situation and therefore weren’t comparable.
“The situations were dramatically different,” Silver told reporters. “I think what we saw in the case of Donald Sterling was blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people. While it’s difficult to know what is in someone’s heart or in their mind, we heard those words and then there was a follow-up from the league office and that became public as well in terms of what Mr Sterling even subsequently said about his actions.
“In the case of Robert Sarver, we’re looking at the totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he’s owned these teams. Ultimately, I made a judgment that in the circumstances in which he had used that language and that behavior while, as I said it was indefensible, it’s not strong enough. It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way, but that it was wholly of a different kind than what we saw in that earlier case.”
Sarver has also taken issue with being compared to Sterling, telling the Arizona Republic: “It’s hard to even dignify those comparisons with a response. There is no comparison at all. I have a 40-year-long track record of advocating for inclusion in hiring and promoting minorities and women, and I have devoted my time and resources to fighting for equality and supporting underserved communities. I’m proud of the Suns organization’s record on these issues. Up until this ESPN story, there has never been any claim or mention of me being racist or sexist. It’s just not who I am. My long-time business partners, co-workers, friends, and family will tell you the same.”
I think it’s worth taking a moment to revisit the details of the two cases, just to refresh everyone’s memory.
Sterling, during his tenure as governor of the LA Clippers, set arecord for the largest monetary payment ever obtained by the US justice department in a settlement of a case of housing discrimination. Sterling agreed to pay $2.75m to settle allegations that he discriminated against Blacks and Hispanics at various apartment buildings he controlled in LA. But that’s not why the NBA sent him packing for life.
Sterling lost the Clippers after he was caught on tape complaining to his mistress, V Stiviano, about posting pictures on Instagram with Black people and proclaiming that he didn’t want her bringing any Black people to Clippers games, namely Magic Johnson. One the recordings, he came off like a jealous man who obviously had some type of complex toward Black men. This falls in line with what former Clippers player Quentin Richardson told me on my podcast The Rematch.
“He would parade into the locker room after the games with his entourage and we would be half-dressed, coming in and out of the showers,” Richardson told me. ”He would say, ‘Look at my (Black) players, look at their bodies,” in a description that sounded like a sick infatuation straight out of Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Once the audio of Sterling recorded by Stiviano became public, Silver conducted an investigation and swiftly banned Sterling from the league for life in addition to a $2.5m fine.
Silver called a press conference and boldly looked into the camera and proclaimed: “Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling … for life.”
Many were expecting that same energy with Robert Sarver. That same zero-tolerance response to racism, bigotry, hate and misogyny. The same proclamation that “sentiments of this kind were contrary to the inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic league”. The same boldness, empowered posture and definitive stance.
But instead the NBA world watched as Silver appeared to make excuses for Sarver and his seemingly light punishment while simultaneously voicing his remorse for the entire situation as if his hands were completely tied.
An argument could be made that the “indefensible” behavior of Robert Sarver for almost two decades was far more egregious than Donald Sterling’s recording of him being a jealous boyfriend with an inferiority complex of Black men. (Reminder, the discrimination lawsuit, allegations of misconduct, player mistreatment and wrongful termination lawsuit by Elgin Baylor alleging discriminatory treatment, among other things, were not listed as factors in Sterling being forced to sell the Clippers. Only the audio was described as the determining factor.)
In contrast, the allegations against Sarver came to light last November in a lengthy ESPN story that detailed numerous anonymous current and former Phoenix Suns employees who detailed Sarver’s “indefensible” behavior. The subsequent investigation revealed the following key findings, as laid out in the report:
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 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.
Ashley Silva, a former employee of the Suns’ marketing department, said in a tweet posted Saturday: “Dear @NBA I know it’s not a priority for you at this point, but a lot of us trusted you, broke our [non-disclosure agreement], and were traumatized all over again speaking to the attorneys you assigned because we thought you’d do the right thing. #PhoenixSuns you’ve let hundreds down,’’ she wrote.
And it’s hard to argue with LeBron James, who hours after Silver’s press conference tweeted: “I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right. 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”.
I couldn’t agree more.
So the question remains, why the difference in punishment?
Maybe if someone caught Sarver on tape and leaked it to TMZ, and every outlet played it repeatedly, instead of Silver explaining to the media how the “totality of circumstances” proved to be “very different”, or the differing standards for NBA governors compared to other league employees, we would have seen the same Silver that we saw in the Donald Sterling situation.
I listen to Frank Isola & Brian Scalabrine on Sirius XM NBA Radio in the mornings when I drop my kids to school. And for the last three days I’ve been listening to Scalabrine discount, deflect, defend and excuse Sarver and his actions. He’s used whataboutisms (asking if LeBron would get kicked out of the league for similar conducts), dismissed the accusations of misogyny as “locker room talk” and claimed just because Sarver used the N-word five times doesn’t make him a racist. The whole time I’ve thought: I wonder how many white people in America think like this.
If my grandfather were alive today, he would tell Adam Silver, Robert Sarver, Brian Scalabrine and any other white person who didn’t understand that there is no such thing as a white person using the N-word in a non-racial way. If my grandmother were alive she would tell him of the many decades she had to endure demeaning misogyny and deal with sexist pigs in the workplace and how this is not something that women should have to tolerate in 2022.
If the NBA is going to stand as an institution that has historically taken a leadership role in matters of race relations and fair, equitable, respectable treatment for women and a safe work environment from top to bottom, nobody can be above the law. Not even a billionaire governor of an NBA franchise.