Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, allegedly sexually harassed employees and made sexist and racist comments, according to an ESPN report published on Thursday.
Among the accusations, which Sarver firmly denies, is a claim by former Suns head coach Earl Watson that Sarver used a racial epithet in conversation. Watson, whom the Suns fired in 2017 after compiling a 33-85 record over two-plus seasons, told ESPN that Sarver used the epithet multiple times while complaining that a Golden State Warriors player used it with impunity on the court. Sarver says Watson’s claim is “absolutely untrue.”
The story repeatedly depicts Sarver as making crude, completely inappropriate comments on a regular basis.
“More than a dozen employees,” the story says, recalled Sarver talking about his wife performing oral sex on him and his using certain brands of condoms. Sarver is also accused of asking players about their “sexual prowess” and sexual activities. One person told ESPN that Sarver views women as “possessions” and inferior to men. Meanwhile, a former team account executive told ESPN that Sarver pantsed him in front of more than 60 employees during an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Sarver, through an attorney’s statement provided to ESPN, acknowledged the pantsing incident and apologized.
The allegations, and how the NBA will respond, have drawn immediate comparisons to the situation in 2014 faced by then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The NBA permanently banned Sterling, whom TMZ outed as making racist comments in a recorded conversation, while his wife, Shelly Sterling, seized control of the team and sold it to Steve Ballmer. Ousting Sarver from his ownership role would be no simple matter.
Sarver, a 59-year-old real estate developer, bought the Suns in 2004 for a reported $401 million. The team is currently worth $1.64 billion. The Suns enjoy lucrative sponsorships with Southwest Airlines, Verizon, Coca-Cola and other top brands, the values of which are particularly high after the team made it to the NBA Finals last season before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sarver and the Suns issued statements categorically denying the accusations and sharply criticizing ESPN and its journalism. “The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization vehemently reject the claims made in today’s ESPN article. Our two organizations have always worked hard to create an environment that is respectful and diverse; where racism, sexism and damaging behavior of any kind are not condoned, Jason Rowley, President & CEO on behalf of Suns Legacy Partners, said in an emailed statement. “Today’s story contains false information and narratives perpetuated by a reporter who has struggled unsuccessfully to match the facts to a story he decided he wanted to tell a year ago,” Rowley said.
The Suns, meanwhile, denounced the story as full of “completely baseless claims.” They further insisted they have “documentary evidence in our possession and eyewitness accounts [that] directly contradict the reporter’s accusations.”
The NBA has retained the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which the league previously used to investigate the Los Angeles Lakers for tampering and which represented Alex Rodriguez’s group in the purchase of the Minnesota Timberwolves, to investigate the Suns.
The league said it will gather facts on the matter. “The allegations contained in today’s ESPN article are extremely serious, and we have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation,” the league said in an emailed statement. “The NBA and WNBA remain committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees. Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”
Rowley’s statement said the team would “welcome any investigation by the League to review and respond to these false accusations.”
The NBA stressed that it has not received any complaints about Sarver or other Suns executives, including through its confidential workplace hotline. The NBPA similarly said it has not heard of any reports from players. ESPN’s story, however, reports that Suns employees were told by HR to “not file complaints” but instead have discussions—without accompanying written accounts—about their concerns. Some employees said they feared retaliation firings.
The alleged comments are particularly troubling in a league where, according to Statista, approximately 74% of players are black. The league has made efforts to address workplace misconduct controversies, including a high-profile one involving the Dallas Mavericks in 2018. The team’s owner, Mark Cuban, wasn’t directly implicated by the league but was blamed for failing to adequately supervise staff accused of mistreating and harassing female employees. Cuban was not punished but made a $10 million donation to domestic violence and women’s empowerment organizations.
Commissioner Adam Silver has broad authority to suspend an owner for misconduct under the league constitution, which governs the legal relationship between owners and the league. Article 24 supplies Silver with “final, binding and conclusive” authority to suspend an owner for a definite or indefinite period when the owner has—in the commissioner’s opinion—engaged in conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA.
The commissioner, however, cannot force Sarver to sell the Suns. Ouster involves procedures detailed in Articles 13 and 14 of the constitution. These articles instruct that at least three-quarters of the 29 controlling owners of every other team (meaning at least 22 of the 29) vote to sustain an NBA charge. Before the vote, the owners would act as jurors in an arbitration-like hearing where attorneys for the NBA would present evidence and testimony against Sarver, who would be represented by his own counsel. Toronto Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum, as chairman of the board of governors, would preside over the hearing.
The NBA would likely invoke two sections of Article 13 as sufficient grounds to oust Sarver. The first is 13(a), which forbids Sarver from willfully violating provisions of the league constitution, bylaws resolutions or other contracts with the NBA, such as the Suns franchise agreement and the joint venture agreement obligating owners to acknowledge the commissioner has final authority over team matters. The second is 13(d), which prohibits Sarver from failing to meet his contractual obligations to the NBA, fellow owners or players “in such a way as to affect the Association or [teams] adversely.”
Section 13(a) would require a finding of intentional conduct by Sarver to violate league documents. Sarver, who flatly disputes any wrongdoing, could maintain that even if his actions or statements offended others and defied his contractual obligations, he lacked the intent to defy those obligations.
In contrast, 13(d) forgoes any element of willful conduct. The league would need only convince owners that Sarver breached contractual obligations and, in doing so, adversely affected the league and its business operations. Adverse impact could be shown if, for example, NBA players boycott or threaten to boycott Suns games. Likewise, if Suns or NBA sponsors terminate their contracts with the team or league on account of Sarver’s alleged misconduct, that too would show adverse impact.
As the NBA community digests the Sarver scandal, it’s worth recalling how Sterling’s racism adversely impacted the league’s business. It led President Barack Obama to take time during a news conference in Malaysia to associate the comments with the “legacy of race and slavery” in the United States. Sponsors, including Carmax, Virgin America and Mercedes-Benz began to take steps to sever sponsorship agreements. LeBron James and other stars threatened a boycott. They had the same demand: Sterling must go.
Silver, who had taken over for retired commissioner David Stern only two months earlier, announced that he had banned Sterling for life, fined him the maximum amount and recommended the board of governors vote Sterling out.
The owners never voted. In fact, they never held a hearing.
Shelly Sterling convinced a Los Angeles judge to declare her the sole trustee of the family trust that owned the team. Her argument: Donald Sterling lacked the mental competence to discharge his duties under the trust.
The distinction between the NBA banning, but not removing, Sterling from the Clippers is sometimes overlooked. Would Sterling’s fellow owners, some of whom may have also made insensitive comments in private, have forced Sterling to sell?
This leads back to Sarver. Some NBA owners, particularly any who have made insensitive comments about race or women, might worry that ousting him would create a precedent.
But a more recent example from another league should worry Sarver. In 2018, the NFL pressured (though did not technically force) Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to sell after accusations he engaged in physical and sexual misconduct against women who worked for the team. The NFL, like the NBA, requires a three-fourths vote under its constitution. But league coercion, coupled with the prospect of facing a trial with fellow owners as jurors, might lead an accused owner to step aside “voluntarily.”
An alternative path to removing Sarver would be for others in his ownership group to contractually compel his ouster. As noted above, Shelly Sterling accomplished the goal of removing her husband by having a judge declare him unfit to run the trust. Yet based on ESPN’s reporting, it appears an analogous move with Sarver won’t happen. The story mentions that the Suns ownership group consists of about 20 people and, earlier in Sarver’s tenure, explored his removal. Their contractual agreement, however, would only authorize such action if Sarver committed a crime or engaged in similar misconduct.
–With assistance from Barry Bloom.
(This story has been updated with details of the league’s investigation as well as new statements from the NBA and the Suns in the seventh, eight and ninth paragraphs.)