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NBA under pressure to remove Suns owner


N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver could have suspended Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, for longer than one year but chose not to.

By Tania Ganguli


Minutes before the NBA announced the results of an independent investigation into Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, last Tuesday, a call took place between NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the players’ union.


Silver told Tremaglio the report was coming and that, based on its findings, he’d given Sarver a $10 million fine and one-year suspension.


It was one of many conversations they had last week. Once Tremaglio had read the 43-page public report that said Sarver had used racial slurs and treated women unfairly, she met with players on the union’s executive committee. Then, she told Silver that a one-year suspension would not do. Sarver, she told him, should never return to the Suns.


“We do have to step up; I have to protect our players,” Tremaglio said in an interview Friday. “In my mind, this is not protecting our players. We are putting them in a situation that we already know is toxic if we were to permit that.”


She said Silver had said he understood.


“I think he also was torn with regards to what needed to be done,” Tremaglio said.


Tremaglio and NBA players aren’t alone in wanting Sarver out of the NBA for good. A prominent sponsor and a Suns minority owner also have called for Sarver to no longer be involved with the team, part of mounting pressure for a dissolution of the relationship between Sarver and the NBA. Sarver also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.


“I cannot in good judgment sit back and allow our children and future generations of fans to think that this behavior is tolerated because of wealth and privilege,” Jahm Najafi, a Suns vice chairman and minority owner, said in an open letter to employees and fans Thursday calling for Sarver to resign.


PayPal, which has a logo patch on the Suns jerseys, said Friday it would not renew its sponsorship after the 2022-23 season if Sarver were involved with the team after his suspension.


Dan Schulman, PayPal’s president and CEO, said in a statement that Sarver’s conduct was “unacceptable and in conflict with our values.”


According to the investigation report by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, Sarver engaged in misconduct over his 18 years with the team, including saying “the N-word at least five times,” demeaning and bullying employees, and commenting that women cry too much after berating a female employee in front of others.


Silver could have suspended Sarver for longer than one year, but $10 million was the maximum monetary penalty allowed for an owner.


Najafi, in his open letter, said: “Similar conduct by any CEO, executive director, president, teacher, coach, or any other position of leadership would warrant immediate termination. The fact that Robert Sarver ‘owns’ the team does not give him a license to treat others differently than any other leader.”


Najafi seemed to be alluding to a comment by Silver at a news conference last Wednesday in response to a question about why Sarver should be held to a different standard than any other employee or executive.


“There’s no neat answer here, other than owning property, the rights that come with owning an NBA team, how that’s set up within our constitution, what it would take to remove that team from his control is a very involved process, and it’s different than holding a job,” Silver said. “It just is, when you actually own a team.”


In 2014, when a private recording of Donald Sterling making racist remarks about Black people was made public while he owned the Los Angeles Clippers, Silver barred him for life. He also said he would urge the board of governors to remove Sterling as owner. They didn’t need to take that step because Sterling’s wife, Rochelle Sterling, sold the team.


According to the league’s constitution, terminating someone’s ownership requires the approval of three-fourths of the board of governors, which includes owners from all 30 teams. On Wednesday, Silver said the board had not discussed that option for Sarver. Silver also said he had not spoken with Sarver about voluntarily selling the team, which fans have called for.


Tremaglio has been in conversation with the union’s leadership throughout the week.


“Our players have, as you know, over the last several years, really been adamant about stating things that we thought were inequitable,” Tremaglio said. “Not only as it just relates to them specifically but as it relates to society as a whole. We did think it was critically important to say that we did not want Sarver to be in a position where he was managing people that impacted our players on a daily basis.”


Tremaglio made the union’s position public in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday night.


“Mr. Sarver’s reported actions and conduct are horrible and have no place in our sport or any workplace for that matter,” she said.


She added: “I have made my position known to Adam Silver regarding my thoughts on the extent of the punishment, and strongly believe that Mr. Sarver should never hold a managerial position within our league again.”


The WNBA players’ union, in a statement to The New York Times, said its union leaders were discussing the matter and would “share our position privately with both commissioners.”


Two of the longest-tenured NBA players, LeBron James, 37, of the Los Angeles Lakers and Suns guard Chris Paul, 37, posted on Twitter on Wednesday expressing their dismay at the perceived leniency of Sarver’s penalty.


“I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read,” said Paul, who has played for the Suns for the past two seasons. “This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated.


“I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior. My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected.”


Paul, who was the president of the union until last year, also played for the Clippers when the recording of Donald Sterling was made public in late April 2014, as the Clippers faced Golden State in the playoffs. The two teams talked about boycotting Game 4; instead, the Clippers removed their team-branded warm-ups before the game and dumped them in a pile on the court as a form of protest.


Few players have commented about Sarver, but media day for the 2022-23 season is Sept. 26.


While Tremaglio disagreed with the length of Sarver’s suspension, she appreciated that the league commissioned such a thorough review — it took about nine months and involved interviewing hundreds of people and reviewing tens of thousands of documents. She was also pleased they made most of their report public.


“We know that certainly in other leagues and other sports that information does not become public,” Tremaglio said. “It did give everyone the opportunity, to some extent, to voice their opinions, objections, etc., and to some extent I think that’s a good thing.”

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