Robert Sarver sells the Phoenix Suns, but the NBA’s job isn’t done


After 18 years as owner of the Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver left many across the NBA with a story.

Some are whimsical, like him keeping a herd of goats in his general manager’s office. Some were reprehensible, such as his racially insensitive language and treatment of employees detailed by an NBA investigation that concluded last week. Some are confused, as fellow NBA owners saw him cutting his nails on a zoom call as debris fell on his dark shirt, sources said.

The final chapter on the server is to be written.

He announced Wednesday that he plans to sell the Sun and Phoenix Mercury. At the start of a one-year suspension, the server may soon be off the league’s radar for good.

This relieves a great deal of stress as teams open training camp, where players will undoubtedly express their feelings about the situation. But a final sale doesn’t mean the problem is gone.

Sarver is the third owner in the last eight years to sell his team after racially insensitive incidents became public, following Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers in 2014 and Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015.

The backlash from players contributed to the pressure, which led to the league banning Sterling for life and turning up the heat on the server instead of serving the league-appointed punishment.

“I’m so proud to be a part of a league committed to progress!” LeBron James tweeted after the server’s announcement.

James and Sons star point guard Chris Paul expressed disappointment at the NBA’s initial punishment for Sarver — a one-year suspension and a $10M fine — and pushed for a more severe punishment. NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio called for a lifetime ban. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, for his part, called for a vote among owners to remove the server to force him to choose sides.

These well-timed, well-crafted and strategic uses of leverage, combined with fugitive sponsors, ultimately put one of the league’s power brokers in charge. But the fact that 10% of the league has had to deal with such ugliness in less than a decade now is a disturbing statistic.

A server’s exit serves as a notification that tolerance for bad ownership behavior has been tightened. The reactions have sent a message: Ignorance can no longer be accepted as an excuse.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he believed Sarver’s punishment was appropriate after the league’s lengthy and thorough investigation found that repeated use of the N-word did not prove racial “hostility.” The players who spoke out rejected that premise, and many more will when the microphones are put in front of them next week.

Silver, who often acts as the voice of the owners, said he believes the fines are reasonable when taking into account “not just the specific allegations, but the totality of the circumstances over the 18 years Mr. Sarver has owned the Suns. And Wednesday.”

Those who spoke rejected this too and made it clear: bad deeds are bad deeds – no matter how long ago they happened or how good they came.

This, in particular, seemed to sting Sarver, who, when the initial allegations arose, defended himself by listing his charitable gifts and work in the community. He did so again Wednesday when he announced his team was up for sale.

“But in our current unforgiving environment, it’s become painfully clear that that’s no longer possible — the good I’ve done, or can still do, far outweighs the things I’ve said in the past,” Server wrote.

Although he did it through gritted teeth, the server swallowed the reality that behavior that had been tolerated for so long had been declared unacceptable.

This is the emerging new reality, where nearly everything has an electronic paper trail, the threat of discovery in lawsuits is constant, and brave employees are speaking out through fear or non-disclosure agreements.

Is this the end of the trend? Are there others? Can the NBA recover from this painful episode in what is now being described as constructive labor talks between players and owners?

These questions remain unanswered for now. But they are the ones sitting behind the light of reaction to the server’s demise. And that unknown is frustrating at the highest levels of the league.

“I’d like to say we’ve turned the corner,” Silver said last week. “We’re not clear.”


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