By agreeing to sell his franchises, Phoenix Suns owner and Mercury owner Robert Sarver may be trying to absolve the NBA of its serious miscarriage of justice, so we must be reminded that none of this would happen without the courage of the people who risked their power. In order to shed light on his crimes.
It seems unlikely that the NBA would have stopped Sarver at all had it not been for more than 70 of its current and former employees to disclose allegations of racism, misogyny and other workplace misconduct to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the accusations published in November 2021. It said it had not received a single advice regarding server behavior for an anonymous hotline it set up in the wake of Sports Illustrated’s 2018 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at the Dallas Mavericks.
If the NBA is serious about its commitment to social justice, the NBA must ask itself: Are we doing enough to convince our employees that we are committed to making their workplace safe and equitable?
The independent investigation into Sarver’s misconduct, which began only after ESPN exposed, and copious cases of harassment throughout his 18-year tenure, from confirmation that he used the N-word in a free agent recruiting field during his first season as a team owner in 2004 to confirmation of his use of sexual language Candid at the 2021 meeting. It’s hard to believe the league wasn’t aware of Sarver’s excesses.
Even with a 43-page report brimming with evidence to the contrary, the National Basketball Association upheld its independent law firm’s decision “not to discover that Sarver’s behavior was motivated by racial or gender-based hostility.”
Commissioner Adam Silver did not cover himself in glory when he said, “There are certain rights here for someone who owns an NBA team rather than someone who is an employee.” His explanation that employees and franchisees are “fully committed … to the same level of appropriate behavior” fell woefully, given a frivolous one-year suspension and a $10 million fine imposed on Sarver rather than a lifetime ban.
She has dumped the burden on the whistleblower, some of whom still work for Suns, to forgive and forget.
In the end, money happens. Paypal has pledged not to renew its longstanding partnership with Suns and Mercury, should Sarver return to his position at the end of the suspension. One member of Sarver’s ownership group spoke out against the managing partner’s oversight. More league and team sponsors are set to stop being associated with the Phoenix franchises, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. The National Basketball Players Association had just begun its protest, calling for Sarver to resign. Sarver eventually withdrew.
Perhaps this has been the NBA’s all-time hope, that the financial fallout from the Sarver scandal will provide enough pressure to force his ouster, and the league’s other 29 ownership groups can avoid the possibility of further fallout from the discovery process behind a potentially contentious legal battle. .
However, here we are, it is not because the NBA did everything in its power to protect the rights of its employees.
It took TMZ to release tapes of statements by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, followed by protests from players and sponsors, before the NBA issued a life ban. Sterling’s behavior has been no secret, considering he has prompted a pair of historically large housing discrimination lawsuits over the past decade. Until then, it was Shelley Sterling, not the league, that facilitated her husband’s dismissal, deeming him legally mentally unfit to make decisions and vowing not to sue the NBA as part of her sale.
Likewise, it was the Sports Illustrated report that exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment, abuse, and other misconduct within the Mavericks organization. An independent investigation resulting from the NBA revealed that club owner Mark Cuban had prior knowledge of an employee’s repeated sexual harassment — and violent threats — of his co-workers, as well as two acts of domestic violence perpetrated by another employee, including one of his co-workers. Cuban denied prior knowledge of team president and CEO Terdima Osiri “inappropriate workplace behavior toward 15 female employees,” despite the Dallas Morning News revealing an internal investigation into Osiri’s abuses prior to Cuban’s purchase of the team.
“Sorry, it doesn’t work that way,” Melissa Weisenhaupt, the Mavericks’ director of marketing from 2010-14 and one of Usseri’s accusers, wrote to SI. “When you worked on the business side of Mavs, you went through all of your marketing, merchandising and broadcasting decisions. Nothing was decided without your consent.”
Under Cuban’s leadership, “many employees reported that the company’s apparent inaction … reinforced their belief that it was futile to file any complaints with HR.” In Sarver’s case, the culture was nearly identical: “Employees were reluctant to report their concerns and also reluctant to complete HR surveys.”
As for Sterling, his racism was widely publicized well before 2014. In addition to housing discrimination lawsuits, one of the game’s all-time greats, Elgin Baylor, who spent 22 years of his career after playing as the Clippers’ general manager, made several allegations of racial discrimination in a lawsuit against Sterling.
In each case, the National Basketball Association neither conducted an investigation nor claimed there was no prior knowledge of widespread misconduct in its midst. The league should be able to explain why it is not moving or not knowing. We wouldn’t like the answers as much as when Silver alluded to it at his press conference. The employees rightly believe that their voices will not be heard because the power dynamics tilt heavily in the direction of the NBA franchise owners, and the league office is indebted to them, even when misconduct appears.
It took the bravery of Sarver’s staff to present their accounts as victims of harassment, Holmes’ tireless reporting to reveal sordid details, and a 10-month independent investigation into the whole thing, and the NBA still hasn’t judged the team owner’s account. Then it required more media coverage, condemnation from players, an initial minority owner, and the revocation of sponsorship to force Saver into a hand.
However, Sarver will walk the fortune he has amassed on the backs of those who have slandered his reputation. As Shelley Stirling told Shelburne about her husband in 2019, “He’s happy to sell the team now. Yeah. He tells a lot of people. He says, ‘You know, I had to sell the team, but I feel like I fell and the tree and I landed on a pile of gold.”
To be sure, more misconduct has been revealed in the NBA, or else a league that oozes pride in progressivity would have had a three-quarter vote among club owners to drive out the worst among them. We can only hope that their subordinates will be brave enough to tell their stories, because if we learn anything from this mess, there are outside forces willing to hold the powerful to account if the NBA is not.
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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him to email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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