If anyone else in an NBA organization, other than the team owner, stood accused of creating a work environment as hostile as the one detailed to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes by dozens of current and former employees, that person would no longer have the job, especially if he or she corroborated multiple instances of harassment.
The only argument against the removal of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver from the NBA’s board of governors is, well, because he owns the team, and his wealthy peers would not want to set precedent for stripping alleged racists and misogynists of their teams, for reasons that could benefit only themselves.
Money is only a convincing argument for excusing workplace harassment to anyone who has a lot of it.
Once the NBA’s investigation into Sarver is completed, the absence of a hearing to remove him from the league, which would require a three-fourths vote from his fellow team owners, is an endorsement of his admitted behavior. The board of governors must seriously consider whether they want to allow one of their members to rule his team by fear, if not far worse, because that is exactly what is happening in Phoenix right now.
At best, Sarver conceded through his lawyers to ESPN that he used the N-word in conversation quoting a player, shared a photo of his wife in a bikini with executives, asked a player if he shaves his genitals and pantsed an employee in front of more than 60 coworkers at a charity event. That is what he admitted to. He denied most other allegations in a series of statements, sometimes contradictory, issued by his lawyers.
No general manager’s job would survive those admissions, so why should it be different for a team owner? The NBA should not want to be in business of condoning behavior solely on the basis of one’s power within it.
At worst, Sarver is a serial racist and misogynist, according to people from every level of the organization who shared their accounts with ESPN. A high-level executive alleged Sarver said, “These [N-words] need a [N-word],” to explain his 2013 promotion of interim head coach Lindsey Hunter, who is Black. “More than a dozen employees” alleged that Sarver made lewd remarks in all-staff meetings. Two employees alleged that Sarver threatened to remove a woman from her role for being pregnant. That is just what some attested to.
The extensive allegations make Sarver’s meddling in coaches’ meetings seem ordinary by comparison.
There will be plenty of discussion about the burden of proof in this case. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks were caught on tape prior to his ouster from the NBA in 2014, long after he was the defendant in the largest housing discrimination lawsuit recorded by the Department of Justice.
Nobody has disclosed a smoking gun so hot as the one that burned Sterling, but the allegations against Sarver are corroborated by multiple people, sometimes more than a dozen. Case in point: Four former employees reported Sarver claimed he needed “extra-large condoms” in “several all-staff meetings.” How many sources is enough for the NBA? Because the picture painted by more than 70 of them is appalling.
The toxic spread to the Suns’ human resources department should be most concerning to the NBA. According to ESPN, multiple employees were told “they no longer fit in the organization” after filing complaints to HR, including one specific sexual harassment allegation against Sarver. More reportedly would not file complaints to HR out of fear of retaliation. Two former HR representatives told ESPN they encouraged employees to speak outside the office, “because if they see you being here, they’re gonna come after you.”
“You want to do right by the employee and make sure that they’re not getting infringed upon,” one former HR representative told ESPN. “But ultimately, you’re getting paid by the owner. So you’re the police.”
The inference: Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the board of governors is the last line of defense.
It should be of grave concern to the NBA that nobody reported Sarver’s behavior to the anonymous hotline the league established in the wake of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment allegations against the Dallas Mavericks in 2018. The sheer volume of ESPN’s sources illustrates that the absence of complaints is not evidence of the absence of misdeeds, but evidence that complainants feared reporting those misdeeds.
One female former employee told ESPN the organization “broke” her. Another contemplated suicide. More than a dozen current Suns employees acknowledged seeking professional help to cope with the toxicity.
No business should want to be in the business of stifling the voices of its most vulnerable employees, but any response short of stripping Sarver of his role would accomplish just that, so long as the more than 70 current and former employees who spoke to ESPN do not deny their allegations to the NBA’s investigators.
Even then, you might wonder why so many people would anonymously put their trust in ESPN and not the NBA. Former Suns coach Earl Watson, who did not coach in the league for four years after leaving Phoenix and who alleged on the record that Sarver used the N-word on multiple occasions, shared one possibility.
“Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth,” Watson said in a public statement, “but we can’t forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs.”
When the NBA hired the law firm Wachtell Lipton to conduct its investigation into Sarver last week, two current Suns employees told ESPN there was a groundswell of support in the organization for “their chance to right this ship.” They also acknowledged the need for confidentiality and “protection” from retaliation.
Imagine the position in which this puts the public-facing Suns employees, from general manager James Jones, coach Monty Williams and veteran point guard Chris Paul, all of whom are Black, to a public relations staff that has issued statements from team owners and executives endorsing Sarver and attempting to discredit Holmes.
“An article was written, many opinions were shared, many feelings were shared, but all of it happened before I was here,” Williams said hours after the story’s publication. “Based on what you all know about me, what little you know about me, if any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat.”
“None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t,” Jones said in a one-sentence statement that remains on the team’s website. The GM’s only other statement was issued through Sarver’s lawyers to ESPN: “On multiple occasions, I observed Earl engage in behavior and use language that was extremely unprofessional and offensive. That does not align with who we are.”
There is an inherent problem with those statements. When the allegations were made or whether Williams witnessed them is of no relevance to Sarver’s alleged failure “to fulfill [his] contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely” — the standard for removing a team owner, noted in Article 13D of the NBA Constitution.
What Jones saw from Watson apparently “does not align with who we are,” but Jones did not draw the same distinction when Sarver confessed through his lawyers to unprofessional behavior and offensive language. Now, why in the world might a coach’s transgressions warrant his firing and the team owner’s do not?
You know the answer. The NBA’s 29 other team owners know it, too, and once their investigation into Sarver is completed, we will find out how much abuse of power they might be willing to accept in their league.
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