The Robert Sarver saga: Sale of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury
By: Nolan Hafer
Oct. 25, 2022
Photo Credit: The Ringer
After nearly a year of deliberation and contact with over 300 current and former employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury franchises, the National Basketball Association decided to suspend owner Robert Sarver for one year and fine him $10 million. The independent investigation highlighted the misogyny and racism perpetuated by Sarver that contributed to a toxic work environment.
It took nearly 18 years for Sarver’s unchecked and inappropriate behavior to come to light. The courage of former employees to relive stories of abuse, anxiety, and self-hatred, which came at the hands of Sarver, cannot be ignored. For many, the NBA’s recent decision merely comes as a slap on the wrist. Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated commented well on the aftermath of the Sarver report: “it’s circumstance. Not justice.”
The independent findings opened eyes to the true owner and person that Robert Sarver is. On many occasions, Sarver was alleged to make unwanted sexual or lewd comments about female staff members, and used racially derogotory language to describe players and coaches. Sarver repeatedly directed outbursts towards his own coaching staff over team tactics and decision making. Most egregious of all, Sarver maneuvered an HR and legal apparatus which consistently silenced those who spoke up and threatened future employment.
"He speaks in threats. He likes that awkwardness. He likes people to know that he’s in charge. He wants control. He wants control of every situation and every person.”
a former female employee of Suns and Mercury organizations said (ESPN).
Sarver, who purchased the Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in July of 2004 for an estimated $400 million, announced in a statement on Sep. 21 that he was consulting with the advisory firm Moelis & Co. for the potential sale of both Phoenix franchises. Robert Sarver’s reaction to the year-long suspension and fine came with a lack of acceptance, claiming that, “in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that it is no longer possible - that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by the things I have said in the past. For those reasons. I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury” (Sports Illustrated). Sarver’s apology, or lack thereof, attempts to relinquish responsibility for the pain and abuse he has caused.
The National Basketball Association’s response, meanwhile, misses the mark in condemning Sarver’s actions. In 2014, Clippers Governor Donald Sterling was forced to sell his team and was handed a lifetime ban for racially charged comments which came to light through several recordings. In this case, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver invoked a clause which allowed him to act in “the best interest of the game,” handing out swift punishment to boldly stand against racism throughout the league.
Article 13 of the NBA Constitution gives reasons an owner may be expelled from the league by a vote of three-fourths. The statute deals with operational failures and conflicts of interests such as gambling, yet there is no language which pertains to owners engaging in offensive speech or acts. The league failed to change this provision in the aftermath of Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban. Despite this, critics argue that Silver should have acted upon the bold and firm precedent set in the Sterling saga. Instead, in fear of a long, litigious battle, Silver fell short in his response. As one former Suns staffer told ESPN, “the league failed us when they had the opportunity to stand behind its values.”
From empowering players at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd and standing hand-in-hand to promote the women’s game, the NBA has long served as an institution committed to progressive change. Sarver’s decision to sell, meanwhile, seems to come only in response to reactions from sponsors and players around the league. PayPal CEO, Dan Schulman, claimed that the company would refuse to renew its deal with the Phoenix Suns & Mercury if Sarver returned to power after suspension. Suns’ veteran guard and former president of the National Basketball Players’ Association, Chris Paul, shared heartful disappointment on his social media.
“I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read. This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated. I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior. My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected” (Chris Paul, via Twitter).
A recent Forbes valuation estimated that the current combined worth of both franchises sits at under $2.5 billion. Acceptance of Sarver’s decision to sell allows for both the Suns and Mercury to rebuild systems of integrity that have been long overdue. Sarver’s reign of toxicity and abuse reflects that eliminating racism, misogyny, and hate starts at the top.