By agreeing to sell his franchises, Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver may be attempting to absolve the NBA of its own grave miscarriage of justice, so we should be reminded that none of this would be happening without the bravery of people who risked their livelihood in order to bring his offenses to light.
It seems unlikely the NBA would have ever held Sarver’s feet to the fire were it not for more than 70 of his current and former employees revealing allegations of racism, misogyny and other workplace misconduct to ESPN’s Baxter Holmesaccusations that were published in November 2021. The league conceded it did not receive a single tip concerning Sarver’s behavior to the anonymous hotline it established in the wake of Sports Illustrated’s 2018 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the Dallas Mavericks‘ organization.
If the NBA is serious about its commitment to social justice, the league should ask itself: Are we doing enough to convince our employees we are committed to making theirs a safe and equitable workplace?
The independent investigation into Sarver’s misconduct, launched only after ESPN’s exposé, detailed copious instances of harassment throughout his 18-year tenure, from confirmation he used the N-word in a free-agent recruitment pitch during his first season as team owner in 2004 to corroboration of his use of sexually explicit language in a 2021 meeting. It is hard to believe the league was unaware of Sarver’s transgressions.
Even with a 43-page report full of evidence to the contrary, the NBA endorsed its independent law firm’s determination of “no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
Commissioner Adam Silver did not cover himself in glory when he avowed, “There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who is an employee.” His clarification that employees and franchise owners “absolutely are … held to the same standard of appropriate conduct” fell woefully flat, given the paltry one-year suspension and $10 million fine levied against Sarver in lieu of a lifetime ban.
It put the onus back on the whistleblowers, some of whom still work for the Sunsto forgive and forget.
In the end, money talked. Paypal vowed not to renew its longtime partnership with the Suns and Mercury, should Sarver return to his post at suspension’s end. A single member of Sarver’s ownership group spoke out against the managing partner’s stewardship. More league and team sponsors were prepared to cease associating with the Phoenix franchises, by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. The National Basketball Players Association had just only begun its protest, calling for Sarver’s resignation. And Sarver ultimately folded.
Perhaps this was the NBA’s hope all along, that the financial fallout from Sarver’s scandal would provide enough pressure to force his ouster, and the league’s 29 other ownership groups could avoid the likelihood of further repercussions resulting from the discovery process behind a potentially contentious legal battle.
However we got here, it is not because the NBA did all it could to protect the rights of its employees.
It took TMZ publishing tapes of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks, followed by protests from players and sponsor, before the NBA issued its lifetime ban. Sterling’s conduct was no secret, considering he had paid a pair of historically large housing discrimination lawsuits over the previous decade. Even then, it was Shelly Sterling, not the league, who facilitated her husband’s ouster, legally deeming him mentally unfit to make decisions and pledging not to sue the NBA as part of her sale.
Likewise, it was Sports Illustrated’s report that revealed pervasive sexual harassment, abuse and other misconduct inside the Mavericks’ organization. The NBA’s resulting independent investigation revealed that club owner Mark Cuban had prior knowledge of one employee’s repeated sexual harassment of — and violent threats against — his coworkers, as well as two domestic violence acts perpetrated by another employee, including one involving a coworker. Cuban denied prior knowledge of team president and CEO Terdema Ussery’s “improper workplace conduct toward 15 female employees,” despite The Dallas Morning News uncovering an internal investigation into Ussery’s transgressions prior to Cuban’s purchase of the team.
“Sorry. It doesn’t work that way,” Melissa Weisenhaupt, a marketing manager for the Mavericks from 2010-14 and one of Ussery’s accusers, wrote for SI. “When I worked on the Mavs’ business side, all marketing, promotional and broadcasting decisions went through you. Nothing was decided without your approval.”
Under Cuban’s leadership, “many employees stated that the company’s apparent inaction … fueled their belief that it was pointless to lodge any human resources complaints.” In the case of Sarver, the culture was almost identical: “Employees were reluctant to report concerns and also hesitant to complete HR surveys.”
As for Sterling, his racism was widely publicized long before 2014. In addition to the housing discrimination laws, one of the game’s all-time greats, Elgin Baylor, who spent 22 years of his post-playing career as general manager of the Clippers, made several claims of racial discrimination in a lawsuit against Sterling.
In every instance, the NBA either did not conduct an investigation or claimed no prior knowledge of the widespread misconduct within its midst. The league should be able to explain why it didn’t act or didn’t know. We will not like the answers, as was the case when Silver alluded to them in his news conference. Employees rightfully believe their voices will not be heard because power dynamics are tilted heavily in the direction of NBA franchise owners, and the league office is beholden to them, even when misconduct comes to light.
It took the courage of Sarver’s employees to come forward with their accounts as victims of harassment, the tireless reporting of Holmes to uncover the sordid details, a 10-month independent investigation into it all, and still the NBA did not hold the team owner to account. It then took more media coverage, condemnation from players, a principled minority owner and the revocation of sponsorships to force Saver’s hand.
Still, Sarver will walk with the fortune he made on the backs of those he denigrated. As Shelly Sterling told Shelburne of her husband in 2019, “He’s happy about selling the team now. Yes. He tells a lot of people. He says, ‘You know, I had to sell the team, but I feel like I fell off a tree and I landed we have a pile of gold.'”
There is surely more misconduct yet uncovered in the NBA, or else a league that portends to pride itself on progressivism would have found a three-fourths vote among its club owners to oust the worst among them. We can only hope that their subordinates are brave enough to tell their stories, because if we learned anything from this mess, there are outside forces willing to hold the powerful accountable if the NBA is not.
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