NBA suspends Suns owner Robert Sarver for a year over workplace harassment, use of racial slurs

Robert Sarver of the Phoenix Suns takes notes inside the lottery room during the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery at the New York Hilton in New York, New York.
Jennifer Pottheiser | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

The NBA suspended Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million Tuesday after an independent investigation revealed multiple violations of workplace conduct standards.

The investigation found that Sarver repeated the N-word on at least five occasions. He also made sex-related comments and inappropriate appearance-related comments to and about female employees. He also mistreated employees by yelling and cursing at them.

The probe also found that the Suns’ Human Resources department was historically ineffective.

The league initiated the investigation in November after an article from ESPN alleged misconduct from Sarver. The NBA commissioned the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which reviewed more than 80,000 documents – including emails, text messages and videos – relating to Sarver’s conduct.

Sarver initially called the allegations “false,” “inaccurate” and “misleading” while adamantly denying the claims of his misconduct. In November, he said “I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”

The review of Sarver’s 18-year tenure with as managing partner of the teams corroborated the original reporting, according to the findings.

“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “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.”

The $10 million fine is the maximum allowed by the NBA’s constitution and bylaws. Sarver will also be barred from all NBA and WNBA facilities, events, games, practices and business activities.

“The NBA’s findings concerning the organization focus, for the most part, on historical matters that have been addressed in recent years,” read a statement from Suns Legacy Partners, the company that manages the Suns and Mercury. “Robert Sarver is also taking responsibility for his actions. He recognizes that at times during his eighteen years of ownership, his conduct did not reflect his, or the Suns’ values.”

Sarver’s fine will be donated to organizations that work to address race and gender-based issues inside and outside workplaces. During his suspension, Sarver will complete a training program on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.

“While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees,” Sarver wrote in a statement sent to CNBC. “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.”

The findings echo revelations about former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was fined $2.5 million and banned for life after audio recordings caught him making racist comments. The ban forced Sterling to sell the team for $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer after 33 years of ownership. Sterling’s lawsuit against the NBA was settled in 2016.

Sophie Tremblay

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