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Column: Fines are not enough to address Robert Sarver’s bigotry

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver stands with the Western Conference Championship trophy after the Suns eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy of Harry How/Getty Images/TNS.

Content Warning: This column includes descriptions of racism and sexism.




Last week, the NBA announced a suspension and $10 million fine for Robert Sarver, majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, as a result of an investigation into his misconduct. 

Although I’m sure league administrators are patting themselves on the back for such a flashy decision, I’m not impressed. Fines are not enough to address such pervasive bigotry and bullying in the workplace. 

The investigation into Sarver began after ESPN published an article about Sarver’s “toxic and sometimes hostile workplace.” The official investigation, conducted by an independent firm, came to a similar conclusion. 

The report states that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards,” including using racially insensitive language, treating female employees unequally, making sex-related statements and harsh treatment of employees that occasionally constituted bullying. 

The details are only more disturbing. 

Sarver demeaned female employees, including making inappropriate comments about their physical appearances. In 2015, he joked that the team should have players impregnate local strippers so they would "feel connected to the area." He frequently cursed and yelled at employees in a manner that was an “apparent effort to provoke a reaction from his targets.” 

The report did not find that his conduct was “motivated by racial or gender-based animus,” a conclusion I speculate was because he had a habit of bullying everyone — a non-discriminatory policy if you will. The picture the report paints is a nightmare, and a fine is not an adequate form of redress. 

Sarver’s defense mirrored what most white people do when they’re called racist or what men do when they’re called sexist — the not-so-subtle art of deflection. 

A letter submitted to the investigation on Sarver’s behalf cited the contributions Sarver has made to social and racial justice causes. This includes the percentage of non-white people the Phoenix Suns employs, his commitment to the advancement of women in sports through his ownership of the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team and involvement with numerous charitable organizations. 

Saying you have a Black friend and are nice to women because you know them are not acknowledgments of wrongdoing. Further, a fine only throws money at an issue rather than digging deep to correct and heal. 

I’m not deluded enough to argue that $10 million is not a lot of money, but Sarver’s has an estimated net worth of $800 million. I’m not the greatest at math, but this isn’t going to break the bank. Perhaps it will mean downsizing a bit, like flying first class instead of private. While many of us can’t imagine having that much money, he is in a different bracket (literally) and the league should have considered consequences beyond monetary fines. 

NBA fines are not recycled into their budget, but donated to charities (though recent Patagonia news reminds us that corporate gifts are always a mixture of philanthropy and tax avoidance). The money will surely do some good, but that has nothing to do with addressing the pattern of bullying that Sarver maintained for nearly two decades. 

Sarver’s fine is significantly higher than Donald Sterling’s who, in 2014, owned the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling was fined $2.5 million and banned for life after an investigation into racist comments he made over the phone. Sarver, however, acted in a way that impacted his entire organization. Who knows what could be found in his personal life? 

Amidst the rise of “cancel culture” (or what could also be called accountability), we have pondered how to handle the public mistakes of powerful white men who have been exposed for sexist or racist behavior. An example in recent memory is John Schnatter, aka "Papa John," whose series of mistakes eventually resulted in his resignation. 

As companies seek to uphold their public image and retain the support of consumers, they are stuck between a rock (keeping the public happy) and a hard place (keeping the remaining powerful white men happy). 

For Schnatter, that meant resigning so the company could rebrand — apparently with pizza bowls. For Sterling, it was a fine and ban that allowed his wife to sell the team for $2 billion. Although Sarver has also been banned, it’s unclear what measures will be in place to maintain a code of conduct after his year-long sentence is up. 

There was little done to end Sarver’s reign of terror. And though his lewd behavior may have been sources of company gossip for years, it’s hard to scold the most powerful person in the room. It’s up to those that are above Sarver to make explicitly clear that his behavior is unacceptable. This punishment doesn’t guarantee a safer work environment or demonstrate the league's commitment to “do better” as Commissioner Adam Silver endorsed in his statement on the matter. 

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And I’m not the only one who thinks so. 

After the announcement, LeBron James of the Lakers and Chris Paul of the Suns, expressed sentiments that the decision fell short. James tweeted that “There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any workplace. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team.” 

In the end, Sarver ended up executing his own punishment. 

After previously accepting the league's decision, Sarver announced Wednesday that he planned to sell both the Suns and the Phoenix Mercury. In his statement, he cites the “current unforgiving climate” as a reason that he will be unable to make adequate amends during the allotted suspension. His decision to run from the issue is a missed opportunity on what adequate redress could look like.

It’s hard to predict what the league will do to adjust the parameters of owner accountability. We can only hope that public pressure will do a better job than the league in holding other owners accountable for such behavior in the future.