The NBA on Tuesday announced a one-year suspension and $10 million fine of Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver following a lengthy independent investigation into workplace misconduct allegations.
The league launched the investigation into Sarver following a November 2021 article published by Holmes, whose interviews with more than 70 current and former Suns employees revealed a history of alleged "racially insensitive language," "misogynistic" behavior and other hostile workplace misconduct.
The law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz was commissioned to conduct the investigation. Led by partners David Anders and Sarah Eddy, the investigation featured 320 interviews and the review of more than 80,000 "documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos." The firm's findings formulated a 43-page report that was made public in coordination with the NBA's news release.
The 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.
Terms of the suspension bar Sarver from entering any NBA or WNBA facility for one year. During that time, he also cannot attend board of governors meetings, represent his teams in any capacity, influence any business or basketball decisions or attend any league-affiliated event, including business partner activities.
"The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces. ...
"Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators' report. We must do better.”
“The actions taken on behalf of the NBA and WNBA in response to the findings of the independent investigation are appropriate and necessary. We take great pride in being one of the most diverse and inclusive leagues in sports, and hope that these actions will not only be used to establish a stronger workplace culture for the Suns/Mercury organization but also shine a light on the impact that offensive language and inappropriate behavior can have on employees more broadly," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.
In addition to the suspension and fine, Sarver must complete a training program "focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace." The Suns and Mercury are also mandated to hire an independent firm to "evaluate and make recommendations with respect to workplace training programs, policies and procedures, and hiring and compensation practices — with a focus on fostering a diverse, inclusive and respectful workplace." Regular workplace culture surveys and reports to the league office are also required.
The punishment for Sarver falls between the two other most severe penalties in league history.
The NBA in 2014 banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million once recordings of his racist remarks were made public. Sterling had previously faced several discriminatory lawsuits, which included the largest housing discrimination settlement in American history.
In 2018, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed to donate $10 million to organizations committed to combating domestic violence and supporting the professional development of women in sports, following an investigation that confirmed allegations of widespread sexual harassment and workplace misconduct in the organization. Cuban was not suspended for presiding over a systematic failure to protect employees.
The NBA will donate Sarver's $10 million fine to organizations "committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace." The league's statement said Sarver "cooperated fully with the investigative process." However, according to Holmes and ESPN colleague Adrian Wojnarowski, Sarver took issue with his suspension and fine during what became a "largely acrimonious" punitive process.
"Good leadership requires accountability," Sarver said in a statement Tuesday. "For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that begins with me. While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s 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.
"I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision."
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