Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns in the NBA and WNBA Phoenix Mercurywas suspended for a year and fined $10 million by the NBA as a result of the league’s investigation into the Suns franchise.
The National Basketball Association announced the punishment Tuesday, saying its investigation found that during his time with the Suns and Mercury, Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when telling others.”
In its statement, the association said there have also been “cases of unfair behavior towards female employees”, including “gender-related comments” and inappropriate comments about female employees’ appearance.
The National Basketball Association commissioned an investigation after ESPN published a story in November 2021 detailing allegations of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s 17 years as owner.
While the National Basketball Association stated that Sarver “fully cooperated with the investigation process,” league sources told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Adrian Wojnarowski that he was not accepting of the idea that he deserved a year’s suspension and a $10 million fine for his conduct. The sources said that the punitive part of the process has become quite harsh.
The investigation, led by New York-based law firm Wachtell Lipton, found Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies.”
The National Basketball Association announced that the investigation included interviews with more than 320 current and former employees in addition to Sarver. He also examined more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos. Report has been prepared Publicly available online.
During Sarver’s tenure, the investigation found that:
On at least five occasions they “repeat the N word when telling others.”
“Involved in instances of unfair behavior towards female employees, made numerous comments regarding gender in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical behavior towards male employees.”
Engaged in humiliation and harsh treatment of employees, including yelling and cursing at them.
Those sources said the Sun gave access to human resources records and thousands of internal emails. Also involved in the investigation were specialists from Deloitte, a global accounting firm headquartered in London, and Chicago-based law firm Kirkland Ellis.
“The statements and behavior described in the findings of the independent investigation are disturbing and disappointing,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement. “We believe the conclusion is the correct one, given all the facts, circumstances, and context that emerged from the comprehensive investigation’s 18-year period and our commitment to upholding appropriate standards in venues NBA work.”
Silver continued, “I hope the NBA community will take this opportunity to reflect on what this amazing game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the devastating impact And harmful language and insensitive behavior are racist and degrading. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all affected by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.”
The $10 million fine is the maximum allowed by the NBA, and the money will be donated to organizations “that address issues of race and gender in and out of the workplace.”
During his suspension, Sarver cannot:
“Be present at any NBA or WNBA team facility, including any office, arena, or training facility.”
“Attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices, or business partner activity.”
Represent Suns or Mercury in any public or private capacity.
“You have any involvement in the business or basketball operations of Suns or Mercury.”
“Have any involvement in the business, governance, or activities of the NBA or WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of the board of directors of any league (and associated board committees).”
Sarver must also complete a training program focused on respect and appropriate behavior in the workplace.
Suns and Mercury must also meet a series of workplace improvement requirements set forth and monitored by the NBA. These requirements include:
“Retain an outside firm to evaluate and make recommendations regarding workplace training programs, policies and procedures, and hiring and compensation practices—with a focus on promoting a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace.”
Conduct regular, anonymous surveys about workplace culture and respond to survey results with specific action plans.
“Inform the league immediately of any cases or allegations of significant misconduct by any employee.”
For a period of three years, the league shall be provided with periodic reports regarding the steps taken by the organization to meet these requirements.
“Follow league guidance to address/improve workplace problems if/as they arise.”
In interviews with Wachtell’s attorney Lipton, some of which were conducted in person, by phone and via video conference, Suns employees confirmed a range of allegations published in an ESPN story in November, providing others and submitting documents, including emails.
The investigation also established cases of “workplace misconduct involving Suns employees that were not directly related to Sarver and the lack of appropriate regulatory policies and controls.” It found cases of “racial insensitivity, abuse of female employees, inappropriate comments related to gender or sexual orientation, and disrespectful communications.”
It also found that the team’s HR department was “historically ineffective and unreliable for employees who have been subjected to inappropriate workplace actions.”
The league investigation was the third of its kind to center around a team owner since Adam Silver became the NBA commissioner in 2014 – with all three cases led by Wachtel-Lipton.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski contributed to this report