Phoenix Suns & Mercury Owner, Robert Sarver, Feeling the Heat

Photo via: USA Today

ESPN rumored to be publishing multiple accusations of racism, sexism, and sexual harassment against Robert Sarver

Donald Sterling and Jerry Richardson. Two names professional sports team owners never want to find themselves in conversation with. However, NBA and WNBA team owner Robert Sarver (“Sarver”), is in danger of just that.

According to NBA Insider Jordan Shultz, “The NBA is preparing for a massive story accusing Suns (and Mercury) owner Robert Sarver of racism, sexism and sexual harassment in a series of incidents, sources say. With enough evidence to support such claims, there’s a real chance the league would forcibly remove Sarver.”[1]

However, the Suns released an official statement denying Sarver being guilty of: (i) making racially discriminatory statements; (2) sexist statements; and (3) sexual harassment. The Suns are flipping the script, accusing ESPN of reporting recklessly.[2] Sarver, has owned the Suns since 2004 and watched them return to early 2000’s form, reaching the NBA Finals last season. The allegations, if true, mirrors those against notorious former NBA owner Donald Sterling (“Sterling”). Sterling was infamously pushed out of the NBA in 2014 after his own misconduct.

Sarver, in the Suns’ official statement, further states, “I reject any insinuation of personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination. I despise language that disrespects any individuals, regardless of race, gender, preference, or choice. Such language has no place in business or at home in what I consider Suns and Mercury families. I am proud of our record of diversity and inclusion on both teams — whether on the court or in the front office.”

Recent Issues

Sarver is not the only recent sports figure and/or team under fire. John Gruden (“Gruden”) recently stepped down from his position as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders (“Raiders”) after emails of Gruden using racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language surfaced.[3] What makes Gruden’s story intriguing is the emails surfaced because of the investigation of The Washington Football Team (“Washington”) and its owner Dan Snyder (“Snyder”) for workplace misconduct.

The Washington investigation led to not only the eventual firing of Gruden, but a $10 million fine levied against them, mere pocket change for Snyder. The investigation found that Washington “operated ‘both generally and particularly for women,’ per the league statement, in a ‘highly unprofessional’ manner that included bullying, intimidation, multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a ‘general lack of respect in the workplace.’”[4] Despite the league’s findings and fine, there are numerous unanswered questions — however, that is for another day.[5]

However, if you thought this was the only pro sports league discrimination issue, you are sadly mistaken. The Suns can take a quick trip east to Dallas and find the Mavericks and team owner Mark Cuban (“Cuban”) recently found themselves involved in their own investigation. The investigation found the Mavericks fostered a culture of systematic misconduct throughout the organization. Cuban self-imposed a $10 million dollar penalty as a result.[6]

However, these incidents differ from the situation at hand . . .

*Author Note* Washington, Snyder, and the NFL are wrongfully carrying on like Snyder did not foster the same misconduct that led to the downfall of Sterling and Richardson — but again, that is for another day.

. . . With that, let us look at the precedent for Sarver.

Precedent

I.  Donald Sterling: 2014

Without getting too into the weeds with exactly what Sterling did — a horrible owner and an even more problematic and racially ignorant man — the NBA never forced Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers (“Clippers”). Instead, players protested the team’s logos and Sterling, players and owners across the league spoke out against him, former President Barack Obama condemned his behavior, and sponsors dissociated with the team. Additionally, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (“Silver”) used the full scope of his power: (i) banning Sterling from NBA games for life; (ii) fining him the maximum amount permissible by the NBA Constitution; and (iii) stripping Sterling of any remaining authority he had over the Clippers. This ultimately led to Sterling selling the Clippers.

The NBA never needed to vote to remove Sterling — although Silver threatened to invoke the franchise revocation clause in the NBA Constitution — they merely did everything in their power to force him to remove himself.

II. Jerry Richardson: 2017

Jerry Richardson (“Richardson”) then owner of the Carolina Panthers (“Panthers”), seemingly is if Sterling and Snyder were one person. In a nutshell, Richardson cultivated an inappropriate work environment, both sexually and racially. Richardson, soon after information of his misconduct became public, listed the Panthers for sale. Richardson likely saw the writing on the wall from Sterling and did not want to be dragged further.

The NFL never needed to remove Richardson (publicly). He, like Sterling, removed himself.

Outlook

If Sarver is found to be involved in any capacity with the alleged information that will be published, the writing is on the wall — Snyder, for better or worse, is an outlier. Three of the four persons (two of three owners) involved with either racial, homophobic, or misogynistic (or all three) workplace misconduct have stepped down. There is no recent precedent for leagues forcibly removing owners, instead they have positioned them to have no choice but to step down.

Professional sports teams play an important role in our society, many would agree that forcing a team owner — who is involved in such misconduct — to stepdown from their position would send a pivotal message to the world that nobody is untouchable. For too long we have cultivated a world that overlooks racism, sexism, and homophobia, if Sarver is found guilty of the allegations, the NBA could do the right thing and send a strong message to the world that such misconduct will not be tolerated.


[1] https://twitter.com/Schultz_Report/status/1451647350498283528?s=20

[2] https://twitter.com/Suns/status/1451668638918795267

[3] https://ublawsportsforum.com/2021/10/17/jon-gruden-out-as-raiders-head-coach/

[4] https://www.nfl.com/news/nfl-fines-washington-football-team-10m-following-investigation-into-team-culture

[5] https://ublawsportsforum.com/2021/11/01/chicago-blackhawks-investigation-vs-washington-football-team-investigation/

[6] https://ublawsportsforum.com/2018/09/24/when-10-million-isnt-enough/

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Rising 3L & Co-President of the Buffalo Sports ands Entertainment Law Society. I enjoy writing and learning more about the intersection of business, sports, entertainment and law.

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