After 18 years as the owner of the Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver left many in the NBA with a story.
Some strange things happen, like when he kept a herd of goats in his general manager’s office. Some are counterintuitive, such as his racially insensitive language and treatment of employees detailed by the NBA investigation that ended last week. Some are puzzling, such as when fellow NBA bosses saw him clip his nails on a Zoom call during a mid-pandemic board meeting, sources said, with debris falling onto his dark shirt.
However, the final chapter is about to be written on Sarvar.
He announced Wednesday that he plans to sell Sons and Phoenix Mercury. At the start of a one-year suspension, Sarwar is likely to be permanently off the league’s radar soon.
This relieves a major tension point as teams open training camps, where players will undoubtedly express their feelings about the situation. But the final sale doesn’t mean the problem is gone.
Sarwar is the third owner in the past eight years to have sold his team after racially insensitive incidents became public, after Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers in 2014 and Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks in 2015.
Player backlash contributed to the pressure that led to Sterling being banned for life by the league and turning the heat on Sarver instead of serving his league-appointed punishment.
“I am very proud to be part of a league committed to progress!” LeBron James tweeted after Sarwar’s announcement.
James & Sons star point guard Chris Paul expressed disappointment at the NBA’s initial punishment for Sarver — a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine — and pushed for a stiffer penalty. So did NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio, who called for a life ban. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Greene, for his part, called for a vote among owners to remove Sarver to force him to choose the side.
These well-crafted and strategic uses of influence combined with fledgling sponsorships eventually held one of the league’s power brokers accountable. But the troubling statistic is that 10% of the league’s people have now had to deal with such malfeasance in less than a decade.
Server’s exit serves as notice that the tolerance for bad ownership behavior has been tightened. The responses sent a message: Ignorance will no longer be accepted as an excuse.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he believed Sarver’s sentence was justified after the league’s lengthy and detailed investigation found that repeated use of the N-word did not prove to be a racial “animus”. The speaking players rejected that premise, and probably many others would have done the same if the microphones were placed in front of them next week.
Silver, who serves as the owners’ voice at large, said he believed the punishments were justified when “taking into account the totality of the circumstances, not only on those particular charges, but 18 Over the years Mr. Sarwar owned the Sun. and Mercury.”
The speakers also rejected it and made it clear: Bad deeds are bad acts – no matter how many times they happened or how good they came.
This, in particular, seemed to sting Sarwar, who, when the initial allegations were made, defended himself by listing his charitable gifts and work in the community. He did so again on Wednesday, announcing the sale of his team.
“But in our current unforgivable environment, it has become abundantly clear that this is no longer possible – that all the good I have done, or still can do, exceed the things I have said in the past. Yes,” wrote Sarwar.
Although he did it by gnashing his teeth, Sarwar swallowed the reality that the behavior tolerated for so long has been declared unacceptable.
This is an emerging new reality, a world in which almost everything has an electronic paper trail, where there is a constant threat of discovery in lawsuits, where employees previously feared or excited by non-disclosure agreements are speaking out.
Is this the end of this trend? Are there others? Can the NBA, currently described as productive labor negotiations between players and owners, recover from this painful episode?
These questions will remain unanswered for the time being. But they are the ones who sit right behind the glare of reaction to Sarwar’s demise. And that unknown is worrying for the highest levels of the league.
“I’d love to say we’ve turned a corner,” Silver said last week. “We clearly haven’t.”