Why did the NBA go easy on Robert Sarver? For the same reason leagues always protect team owners

There certainly were contentious issues with arbitrator Sue L. Robinson’s decision in the Deshaun Watson case last month. But one thing Robinson got absolutely correct was how she noted that the NFL’s inconsistencies played a role in how she came to her conclusion on Watson’s six-game punishment (which has since been changed to 11 games after appeal.

The inconsistency of sanctions continues to baffle observers, and not just how players are dealt with.

And it’s not just the NFL.

We saw it again Tuesday, after the NBA announced its findings in the investigation into Robert Sarver, governor of Phoenix Suns and Mercury teams.

In 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned then L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after Sterling was recorded telling his girlfriend — who herself is of Black and Mexican ethnicity, natch — that she could not post photos of herself interacting with Black people at Clippers games or other events and she could not bring “them” to games with her.

This time, Silver went incredibly light on Sarver for behavior that by Silver’s own precedent should be grounds for lifetime banishment.

The NBA commissioned a law firm to look into Sarver after a November 2021 story by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes unveiled some of Sarver’s transgressions, and in full the findings reveal a rotten workplace.

The report said Sarver was sexually and physically inappropriate with female and male employees; engaged in bullying and demeaning behavior, including making crude remarks toward women about his penis size and discussing sex acts in business meetings; was sexist toward female employees, including telling one pregnant employee that she couldn’t continue her assignment once she became a mother; and repeatedly using the N-word in repeating or purporting to repeat what a Black person said, even after multiple people, white and Black, told him he should not do it.

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver received a far less severe punishment than former Clippers owner Donald Sterling despite similar transgressions. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Sarver, like your garden variety bad faith anonymous first-name-buncha-numbers Twitter account, couldn’t accept that Black people could use the N-word but he could not.

Story continues

And for everything the investigation turned up, Sarver got just one year’s banishment and a $10 million fine.

One could make the argument that Sterling’s history of racism — in 2009 he and his family were sued by the U.S. Justice Department for discriminating against Black and Hispanic prospective tenants in apartment buildings they owned — played a role in Silver’s decision to ban him (Sterling ended up selling the team not long after). You might win that argument.

But specific to the NBA, Sarver’s transgressions outnumber Sterling’s. And yet he gets to keep his team.

A skeptic might say Silver made the move against Sterling because he was in the opening weeks of his tenure as commissioner and wanted to send a message early on about how he’d lead the league.

So what kind of message is Silver sending now?

Is he entrenched enough as commissioner that he can be lax with punishment? Is racism and sexism, and generally being a tyrant to employees, OK? Do different team owners face different consequences, depending on how petulant they might be?

In 2017, a well-reported story by Sports Illustrated on then-Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson revealed that he’d made multiple payouts to former employees for alleged sexual harassment of female employees and allegedly using a racial slur toward at least one team scout.

While Richardson was not formally voted out of the club by his fellow team owners, once the story went public, he was pressured to sell and he did, making an incredible profit in the process.

Yet the same commissioner, Roger Goodell, still overseeing the NFL, has seemingly gone out of his way to protect Washington’s Dan Snyder. The Commanders owner has had multiple media investigations (The New York Times and Washington Post) and a Congressional inquiry into his team’s front offices, plus a wealth of other flat-out embarrassing headlines in recent years.

Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder has escaped major punishment from the NFL despite several reports and investigations alleging years of employee abuse and harassment. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

A months-long investigation turned up … something, apparently. Likely multiple somethings. But Goodell told the firm that conducted the investigation not to produce a written report, so anyone looking for transparency, most importantly the victims of the workplace toxicity, have not gotten public confirmation of what they endured or any justice. The Commanders organization was fined $10 million, and Snyder’s personal punishment was a joke as he stepped away from the day-to-day doings of the team for a nebulous length of time and put his wife in charge.

(His adherence to that was also a joke, as Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said a couple of months after Goodell’s “penalty” was announced that he was still speaking with Snyder on a regular basis.)

Snyder has essentially gotten off scot-free.

And for as much as it sometimes feels repetitive to highlight how much the NFL, and now the NBA, don’t really care about the health and well-being of humans, particularly women and Black people, in recent years the only franchise owner whose punishment has been close to fitting the crime is the Miami Dolphins’ Stephen Ross. The NFL concluded that Ross tampered with the best player in the game and one of its higher-profile coaches while both were under contract elsewhere. And he was accused of offering his then-head coach money to tank games … oh wait, that was just a misunderstood “joke.” Riiight.

Ross’ actions harmed the integrity of the game, and he was suspended for six weeks, fined $1.5 million and the team was stripped of multiple draft picks.

Snyder and Sarver did real harm to employees, some of whom are still dealing with the emotional and mental effects of their actions. Perhaps they’re still recovering financially or professionally.

If you’re bothered by the inconsistency, you should be.

And we should all be wondering why Silver and Goodell are not.


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