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NBA suspends Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, fines him $10 million after probe finds workplace misconduct

He repeatedly used the N-word and "made many sex-related comments" to workers, the NBA said in handing down the suspension.
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The NBA on Tuesday suspended Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, for one year and hit him with a record $10 million fine after an investigation uncovered racist and sexist workplace conduct, officials said.

For the next year, Sarver will be barred from all NBA and WNBA buildings, "including any office, arena, or practice facility," the league said in a statement.

He also won't be allowed to participate in any NBA or WNBA event, represent the teams in any capacity, have involvement in any team business or basketball operations or play any role in any league governance, the NBA said.

The $10 million fine is the maximum allowed under league rules, the NBA said, and it is the biggest financial penalty ever handed down to one person in pro basketball history.

The league probe was sparked by a Nov. 4 ESPN story chronicling long-standing allegations of racism and misogyny within the Phoenix basketball operation.

The NBA commissioned a New York-based law firm, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, to lead the probe, and investigators interviewed 320 people, including current and former team employees.

Sarver, team management and employees “cooperated fully with the investigative process,” according to the NBA.

Racial slurs, sexist remarks and bullying

The probe found that Sarver, who has been managing partner of the franchise for 18 years, “on at least five occasions” repeated “the N-word when recounting the statements of others.” 

He was also found to have “engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women,” the NBA found.

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver attends the WNBA Finals on Oct. 13, 2021, in Phoenix.
Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver at the WNBA Finals in Phoenix on Oct. 13.Christian Petersen / Getty Images file

He also “engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees” that “constituted bullying,” the league found.

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

Repeated racial slurs, repeated warnings not to use them

The report detailed all five allegations of Sarver's use of the N-word, although he "did not recall ever saying the N-word except in connection with the 2012 or 2013 team-building exercise."

  • During a 2004 meeting with a free agent, Sarver used the racial slur while recalling that a Black coach or player would regularly use the term when he was in college, at least three witnesses told investigators. An attendee "made a joke to change the subject and ease the tension," and one witness "told Sarver he could never say the N-word, even when quoting someone else," the report said.
  • At a team-building function in 2012-13, a Black player used the word and Sarver repeated it, prompting a team representative to tell him "that he could not use this word," the NBA findings said. 
  • Sarver complained that a Black player on the Golden State Warriors used the N-word during a 106-100 win over the Suns on Oct. 30, 2016, but wasn't hit with a technical foul. He is also to have used the word as he complained about referees to a Suns coach, who was Black. He also "sent a contemporaneous email to the League office complaining about the officiating during the game, in which (among several examples of on-court actions that he contended were incorrectly officiated) he purported to quote the Warriors player as saying the N-word spelled out with an 'a' at the end," the probe revealed.
  • And at least twice from 2010 to 2017, the report found, Sarver used the N-word in repeating what a Black player’s family member purportedly said while boarding a team plane: “White folks in the front, [N-words] in the back."
  • The NBA probe couldn't confirm a detail of the ESPN report, when Sarver is alleged to have said in 2013 that he preferred hiring Black coaches because "these [N-words] need a [N-word].” 

Numerous incidents offending female Suns employees

Sarver has a long history of making sexually inappropriate comments and engaging in conduct that offended women who work for the team, according to the report.

  • He is alleged to have noticed that a female employee had undergone breast augmentation surgery and when they passed in the hallway said: “Did you get an upgrade this summer?” The purported comment left the employee "shocked and offended," the report said.
  • The report alleged that the body shape of female employees was a constant concern of Sarver's: "Finally, more than 10 witnesses recalled Sarver making workplace comments throughout his tenure — in addition to those reported above — about the weight, bodies, or attractiveness of female employees and other women."
  • The report said he berated a female employee in March 2011, reducing her to tears, then met with her again a week later. But when the woman began to cry again, the report says, Sarver said in a raised voice, 'Why do all the women around here cry so much?'"
  • During an all-employee meeting in 2010 or 2011, Sarver mentioned "a certain type of condom," which "elicited a 'stunned and disgusted' reaction from women in attendance," the report said.
  • And in a 2021 business meeting, Sarver told attendees how he learned about oral sex as a child, with witnesses finding "the story inappropriate for a work setting," according to the report.

Memories of NBA action against Donald Sterling

Silver, the head of the league since early 2014, might be best known for the action he took months into the job when he banned then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life over a series of racist comments.

"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 standards in NBA workplaces," Silver said.

"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."

Sarver's attorney, Thomas Clare, wrote to the NBA's investigators and reminded them that Sarver supported Silver's effort to boot Sterling, a Southern California real estate magnate.

"In 2014, following racist and misogynistic conduct from the then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Mr. Sarver did not mince words when he spoke out about the NBA’s commitment to inclusion and racial equality: 'I would rather not be partners with somebody who has the views that were expressed on [Sterling’s] tapes,'" Clare wrote.

Sarver apologizes: 'I take full responsibility'

Sarver said he took issue with some aspects of the NBA report but apologized nonetheless.

"Good leadership requires accountability. For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that begins with me," he said in a statement. 

"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. 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."

Despite the league's findings, Sarver insisted his franchise prizes diversity and inclusion.

"I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. 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," he continued.

"I am extraordinarily proud of the Suns and Mercury organizations and the record we have built concerning diversity, inclusion, and giving back to the community. It means a great deal to me that our dedicated and hardworking employees have made Phoenix a basketball destination — for both players and fans."

Suns Legacy partners LLC, the entity that manages and operates both the Suns and the Mercury, said it accepted the NBA's findings — but suggested that much of the bad behavior wasn't in recent years.

"As the NBA acknowledged, we fully cooperated with the NBA’s investigation, which covered an eighteen-year period, including by encouraging current and former employees to participate," the management group said.

"The NBA’s findings concerning the organization focus, for the most part, on historical matters that have been addressed in recent years, including through meaningful enhancements to our workplace compliance program." 

Suspension comes as Suns rise in the West

The Phoenix Suns, who are worth about $1.8 billion, are pro basketball’s 18th most valuable franchise, according to the most recent analysis by Forbes.

The Suns recorded a franchise record 64 victories in the 2021-22 campaign, and they're expected to be an elite team again this season.

The WNBA's Mercury struggled to a 15-21 mark this season, having to play without star center Brittney Griner, who remains in Russian custody.

CORRECTION (Sept. 14, 2022, 2:47 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled a name in the law firm that conducted the investigation. It is Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, not Watchell.