Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James said the NBA “definitely” got its punishment of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver “wrong” after a probe of claims of racism and misogyny.
The NBA suspended Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million dollars after the independent investigation found Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and League rules and policies.
“This conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of femal employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”
The NBA commissioned the independent investigation of Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, in November of 2021 after ESPN published an article citing more than 70 Suns employees who alleged Sarver had created a “toxic” work environment in 17 years as owner of the club.
Sarver denied the allegations and said at the time he welcomed the investigation, which was conducted by the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
“Good leadership requires accountability,” Sarver said in a statement on Tuesday released through the Suns.
“For the Suns and Mercury organisations, that begins with me.
“While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologise for my words and actions that offended our employees. 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 NBA said the $10 million fine is the maximum permitted by the league’s constitution and by-laws and will be donated “to organisations that are committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace.”
But Sarver escaped the fate of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who in 2014 was banned for life from the NBA after he was recorded using racist language in a private conversation.
The league later forced the sale of the team to new owners.
Two days after the league handed down its findings, Lakers superstar James took to Twitter to voice his criticism with the punishment.
“Read through the Sarver stories a few times now,” he wrote.
“I gotta be honest…Our league definitely got this wrong. I don’t need to explain why. Y’all read the stories and decide for yourself. I said it before and I’m gonna say it again, there is no place in this league for that kind of behaviour.
“I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any work place. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team. We hold our league up as an example of our values and this aint it.”
A former female Suns employee told ESPN reporter Baxter Holmes, the journalist who broke the story, that the league “failed” those who spoke out about Sarver’s conduct.
“It’s barely a slap on the wrist and shows us the league truly doesn’t stand for diversity, equity or inclusion,” the employee said.
The NBA said the investigation included interviews with 320 people, including current and former employees of the Suns as well as Sarver himself.
More than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos were also scrutinised and the league said Sarver and the clubs co-operated fully with the process.
The investigation found that Sarver on at least five occasions during his tenure “repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others”.
He also “engaged in instances if inequitable conduct toward female employees, made sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.” In one instance cited in the report, Sarver told a pregnant employee that she would be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother because she would be “breastfeeding” and a baby “needs their mom not their father.”
The probe also substantiated instances of workplace misconduct by other Suns employees and “a lack of proper organisational policies and controls.” Multiple witnesses told investigators that Sarver’s aggressive behaviour often seemed intended “solely to provoke a reaction from employees — to embarrass them or assert dominance over them,” investigators said in their report.
However, they added that the investigation “makes no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement he found the findings “troubling and disappointing.” But the league noted that most of the employees who were implicated in misconduct are no longer employed by the Suns.
In July 2021 the club hired a new head of Human Resources who has implemented new policies to improve the workplace culture and give employees an effective means of reporting misconduct.
Sarver’s suspension means he will not be present at any NBA or WNBA team facility, including any office, arena or practice facility.
He cannot attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices, or business partner activity, nor can he be involved in the clubs’ basketball activities or governance.
The league has also ordered Sarver to complete a training program “focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.”