Racism in US basketball: Only an indoor ban for Sarver

For seventeen years, as the owner of the Phoenix Suns basketball franchise, Robert Sarver is said to have created a toxic work environment filled with racism and sexism. As a penalty, he now has to pay ten million dollars and is not allowed to interfere in day-to-day business for a year. Otherwise everything stays the way it is. This decision of the US league NBA caused a stir, also within the club.

The point guard of the Phoenix Suns, Chris Paul, president of the players' union for many years, wrote on Twitter: "In my opinion the sanctions are not sufficient to combat this despicable behavior." Similarly, LeBron James of the LA Lakers also tweeted: "Our league is definitely wrong here."

In November 2021, sports portal ESPN published research on Sarver, who bought the Suns in 2004. The unmistakable title: "Allegations of racism and misogyny". More than 70 former and current employees report on Sarver's derailments. The boss used the N-word several times. He showed the staff photos of his wife in a bikini and made inappropriate comments to a pregnant employee. To name just a few examples.

Racism and sexism in US basketball: The basketball players LeBron James (right) and Chris Paul have clearly positioned themselves on the Sarver matter.

Basketball players LeBron James (right) and Chris Paul have clearly positioned themselves on the Sarver matter.

(Photo: Rick Scuteri/dpa)

The result of the research: Sarver created a "toxic and sometimes hostile work environment". Women in particular were regularly humiliated - not only by Sarver, but also by other male superiors; Sarver tolerated that. "The worst thing for me was the insults," ESPN quoted a former employee as saying. Some have since suffered from eating and sleeping disorders. Sarver is also said to have often expressed insensitivity to African-American players and employees.

A case and its parallels in US sports

It is not the first such case in US sports: the allegations are reminiscent of events in 2014, which then concerned Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers. At the time, a broadcaster had released a tape on which club owner Sterling asked his lover not to associate with black people. Sterling was banned for life by the NBA and urged to sell the Clippers - former Microsoft manager Steve Ballmer took over for two billion dollars.

A similar punishment was now expected in the case of Sarvers and the Phoenix Suns. Especially since the NBA hired the same law firm that investigated the Clippers-Sterling case.

After interviewing 320 people - including Robert Sarver himself - and reviewing more than 80,000 documents, investigators came to the same conclusion as ESPN. Literally, it says Sarver's conduct "clearly violated customary workplace standards as set forth in team and league rules and policies." The report lists dozens of incidents of racist and sexist misconduct - and contains an astonishing subordinate clause: Despite all of this, no racist or misogynistic tendencies could be identified in Sarver. It is this conclusion that sparks criticism.

With the release of the report, the NBA announced that it was suspending Robert Sarver for a year. During this time he has to stay completely out of the day-to-day business of his two teams and is also not allowed to attend any games. Instead, he should use the one-year suspension to complete training “with a focus on respect and appropriate behavior in the workplace”.

In addition, there is a ten million dollar penalty - Sarver's fortune is estimated at eighty times. One can argue about the effectiveness of the ban from day-to-day business, because he didn’t have much to do with it anyway: the 41-year-old manager James Jones is more responsible for the sporting success of the last time, reaching the final series in 2021. By the way, like Coach Monty Williams, he is black.

NBA boss Adam Silver described the decision at a press conference the day after as fair - after all, he made it. He had more problems with the reasoning. This incident cannot be compared to the Sterling case, he said. He referred to the tape recordings of the time. Like the lawyer's report, he also takes the view that, despite everything, Sarver is not a racist or a sexist. The league boss referred to information he knows but is not allowed to share: "I wish I could." This did not contribute to transparency.

The NBA can't force a sale - public pressure might

Silver stressed that he had no right to take someone's team away from them. That's right, because it requires a three-quarters majority of the other 29 owners. The NBA is a league without an association above it, it regulates itself. Although Silver is the head of the league, he is also an employee of the 30 franchise owners.

However, not only the powerful players' union NBAPA recommends a lifetime ban for Sarver. Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi has also issued an open letter demanding Sarver's resignation. And the company PayPal, whose logo can be seen on the Suns shirts, announced it would not renew the contract should Sarver return. If the income in business US sports is at risk, then at the latest things are no longer going as desired.

It is very difficult to force an owner to sell. More effective recently in the football league NFL or in the women's basketball league WNBA after similar allegations as now against Sarver were the attempts to declare someone persona non grata so clearly that the person concerned decided to sell the shares. The NBA boss is holding back - and yet public pressure makes Sarver an undesirable person.

The Phoenix Suns are one of the best teams in the league at the moment and are likely to be in contention for the title next season, with playmaker Chris Paul making sure of that. At least as important is the fact that Sarver sold its shares (currently 35 percent) by the end of the season next spring.

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