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THE SARVER WRIST SLAP: ROGUE OWNERS ARE PROTECTED NOW, NOT EXPELLED
With billions to be made and skeletons to hide, leagues aren’t interested in permanent bans for the likes of Robert Sarver, whose racism and misogyny resulted in a farcical, one-year NBA suspension
Never has a sports league looked prouder. Swinging a sledgehammer with knockout force, denouncing the racist comments of a rogue owner, Adam Silver made immediate, historic impact in his infancy as the NBA’s commissioner. He banned Donald Sterling for life in 2014, orchestrating a quick sale of the shambolic Los Angeles Clippers.
All it took was a creepy audio recording, posted by TMZ, in which the blowhard was heard scolding his romantic interest for posing in Instagram photos with Magic Johnson and other Black sports figures. “Why are you taking pictures with minorities, why?” Sterling asked her, sounding every hour of his 80 years. “Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. … And don’t bring him to my games, OK? … Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast that you're associating with black people.
“Do you have to?"
Before you could spell P-I-G, Sterling was selling his franchise to tech billionaire Steve Ballmer and paying off a $2.5 million fine. An unsparing precedent, it seemed, had been established. Never again would an NBA owner be allowed to disparage minorities — imperative when almost 75 percent of the league’s players are Black — without being expelled by the commissioner and fellow owners.
So, what happened to the Silver hammer? Why, eight years later, is the league giving Robert Sarver a pass for similarly abhorrent cases of racism and misogyny? The owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was issued only a one-year suspension and $10 million fine, even after a league-mandated independent investigation found Sarver repeated the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.” He made “sex-related comments” to employees, uttered “inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women,” and generally engaged in conduct that “clearly violated common workplace standards.”
In the most egregious instances of racism, Sarver didn’t hesitate to use the N-word when recruiting a prospective free agent or conducting a team-building exercise for players, coaches and front-office staffers. That’s one hell of a way to build a team. In 2016, he asked Suns coach Earl Watson, who is Black, why a Black player on the Golden State Warriors wasn’t reprimanded by a game official for his repeated use of the N-word. Said Sarver, according to a summary of the investigation: “Why does (the Warriors player) get to say (N-word, N-word, N-word, N-word, N-word)?!”
“You can’t f—ing say that,” Watson told Sarver.
Responded Sarver: “I can’t say (N-word, N-word, N-word)?”
Not once did Sterling drop the N-word on his death tape. Yet Sarver skates away as a racist who used the slur on multiple occasions. He also skates as a “bully” — the league’s description — who demeaned female employees, reducing one pregnant woman to tears when Sarver said she couldn’t keep her job because she’d need to be at home “breastfeeding” and that her “baby needs their mom, not their father.” He also skates as a perv who sent pornographic material, such as visuals of a naked woman, to male Suns executives. Despite those examples of terrible behavior and more — how about when he dropped his pants, exposing his genitals, when a male trainer was on his knees giving him a fitness check? — Sarver will return to his courtside seat just in time for the 2023-24 season.
And when he does, we’ll ask a potent question: Why would anyone think he has learned his lesson?
He has been an NBA owner for 17 years. He’ll be 61 next month. Why would a bad dog suddenly change and behave? After vehemently disputing the terms of his discipline, didn’t Sarver simply cut a deal requiring him to release a statement with apologetic words, none of which he truly means? “I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values,” he said. “This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”
Consider it collateral damage in the $700 billion boom era — soon to be a trillion — for sports on this planet. The days of owners being rubbed out of leagues for misdeeds are likely over, I’m horrified to say. As a flourishing industry generates absurdly lucrative revenues via media and gambling deals, already-wealthy owners now are so stinking rich that there’s little incentive to expel a Bob Sarver or, in the NFL, a Daniel Snyder or Stephen Ross. Eight years ago, Silver had the robust support of franchise owners when he banned Sterling. Today, with more at stake in the industry and considerably more to lose, owners fear legal backlash from an exiled peer who might expose their skeletons in court. Short of a guilty verdict in an ax-murdering spree, an owner will be suspended as a matter of course and not permanently jettisoned.
If you don’t like it, boycott and stop watching. But the leagues know you won’t. America is hopelessly hooked on sports, to the shameless point that a sleazebag owner gets to keep his team.
Why wouldn’t Silver circumvent the soft-pedal and take another hard-line stance independent of the owners’ wishes? For the same reason his NFL counterpart, Roger Goodell, has shown no interest in purging Snyder amid rampant accusations he oversaw a toxic workplace in Washington. And why he merely wrist-tapped Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, when he advocated tanking games while tampering with Tom Brady and Sean Payton when they were under contract elsewhere. And why he ignored the $50 million-plus fraud scheme in the family business of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who was free to throw a guaranteed $230 million at quarterback Deshaun Watson and his sexual misconduct baggage.
The owners pay the commissioners handsomely, that’s why. If those with the toys don’t want to remove dirty comrades from the sandbox, it’s not happening. They are protected, not blacklisted. Never mind what this says about the NBA and diversity, inclusion and equality. Never mind what it says about Silver’s desire to be the most woke league in sports.
Avoiding any explanation of punitive differences between Sarver and Sterling, the commissioner said Tuesday: “The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing. We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.
“I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators' report. We must do better.”
We must do better? Somewhere, Sterling is wondering why he wasn’t asked to do better while keeping his team. Perhaps the world is fatigued, recalling the storm of criticism — from President Barack Obama, Michael Jordan and LeBron James — that pressured the league to take swift action against Sterling. Sarver, tucked away in the Arizona desert, didn’t create the same furor nationally. But that shouldn’t have mattered when it was time to punish him.
It wasn’t long ago, in 2017, when the NFL forced Jerry Richardson to sell the Carolina Panthers. His sins: racially slurring a Black scout and using inappropriate language in front of four employees, who were paid settlements on the sly. Six years earlier, Major League Baseball forced Frank McCourt to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers, a regal franchise trashed by his financial bungling and an ugly public divorce. “The Dodgers have been one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports,” commissioner Bud Selig said, “and we owe it to their legion of loyal fans to ensure that this club is being operated properly.” MLB also moved quickly to oust Marge Schott, the eccentric owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who had been given a second chance after referring to Jews as “sneaky bastards” and Blacks as “gorillas.” Learning nothing, she said this of Adolf Hitler in a Sports Illustrated interview: “He was OK at the beginning. He rebuilt all the roads, honey. You know that, right? He just went too far.”
Today, I’m starting to wonder if Richardson, McCourt and Schott would keep their teams in the current climate. What the fans think, and what the media think, no longer matters when billions are pouring in. It’s much tidier to put away the guillotine and send a miscreant to his room without dinner.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.