For Suns owner Sarver, a $10M US fine is the cost of a public lesson in how not to treat people

·6 min read
The NBA delivered a one-year suspension and $10 million US fine to Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver on Tuesday. An investigation found that the billionaire owner had engaged in what the league called 'workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies.' (Christian Petersen/Getty Images - image credit)
The NBA delivered a one-year suspension and $10 million US fine to Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver on Tuesday. An investigation found that the billionaire owner had engaged in what the league called 'workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies.' (Christian Petersen/Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A heads-up to my future former white friends: Never say the N-word if you don't like consequences.

Seems like a self-evident truth, but periodically we see public figures learn it first-hand. These are bitter, embarrassing, job-jeopardizing lessons about how to talk to, about, and around people. Cale Gundy, an assistant football coach at the University of Oklahoma thought he could shame one of his Black players by reading the teenager's text messages aloud — unredacted N-words and all — in a team meeting this summer. The stunt went public, and now Gundy is a former assistant coach at OU.

This week, here comes Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, a recidivist N-bomb dropper and, as of this past Tuesday, the recipient of some fairly serious discipline from the league — a $10 million US fine and year-long suspension. The sanctions came a year after an ESPN story accused Sarver of doing a litany of racist, sexist stunts, which triggered an independent investigation into allegations that Sarver created a hostile environment with the Suns.

More than 300 interviews later, the investigators corroborated the original allegations, and the NBA levied its penalty.

"Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behaviour," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement published on Tuesday. "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."

The $10 million fine is between-the-couch-cushion change for a billionaire NBA team owner, but the stiffest financial penalty the league allows. The 12-month suspension could have been longer, but Silver told ESPN's Tim Bontemps that Sarver showed "complete remorse" over his bad workplace behaviour.

Are those sanctions stiff enough to drive home the lesson to Sarver?

Like the NBA's punishment options, and Sarver's grasp of the etiquette regulating the use of inflammatory language, it's unclear.

The league, for example, has endured some criticism for not punishing Sarver more harshly. When former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded using racist language to describe Magic Johnson, the league banned him for life and forced him to sell his franchise. Sarver, in contrast, was penalized a sum equal to a single year of Danny Green's contract.

"Fining a billionaire $10 million is the equivalent of a speeding ticket," NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement criticizing the fine and suspension.

But consider that before Sterling slurred Magic Johnson, Forbes valued the Clippers at $430 million.

After the scandal, Sterling's wife, Shelly, sold the franchise to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.

An order for Sarver to sell the Suns would also have been an invitation for him to collect a premium for doing some other billionaire the favour of allowing them into an exclusive club. And any attempt to prove that racism doesn't pay would get lost in the overnight ballooning of franchise value.

Still, Sarver says he has learned from his transgressions, and the punishment they triggered.

"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 said in a statement issued on Tuesday. "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."

Let's hope so, because the Suns are an on-the-court success. Under head coach Monty Williams, they have won two straight division titles. Last season, they were surprise losers to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semis, but reached the NBA Finals the previous season. In 2021, the general manager was named the NBA's best executive, and last year Williams was named its top coach.

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

But off the court, the club, under Sarver, sounds like a dreary, dreadful, frustrating, maddening place to work.

Lowlights detailed in the investigators' report include:

  • Sarver unnecessarily pulled down his underwear in front of a male employee.

  • Pulled down a male employee's shorts in front of team staff.

  • Emailed pornography to a group of male staffers.

  • Suggested that a pregnant female employee wouldn't be able to do her job effectively after giving birth.

  • Bragged to a female employee about the size of his genitals.

And we haven't even addressed Sarver's N-word use yet.

Investigators confirmed he used it.

Often.

Even after Suns employees warned him it wasn't appropriate.

Learning to live with the consequences

He used it while recruiting a free agent, though it's not clear what kind of player, in a league that's 75 per cent Black, would choose to play for a team run by an N-bomb dropping white guy.

He used it while quoting Black people he had heard use it.

And he used it to question why he couldn't use it, and emailed the league to complain about an opposing player using it.

"[Sarver] purported to quote the Warriors player as saying the N-word spelled out with an 'a' at the end," the report said.

First, if Sarver is concerned that he can't use a word he hears Black players toss around casually, then he's griping about those players' privilege, which is absurd. No sober-thinking person thinks Black folks' N-word privilege outranks the privilege that comes with being a white male billionaire. If you really think this alleged double standard is worth complaining about you might be drunk… on privilege.

Second, Sarver, or any other white person, is free to use the N-word in private, or among friends who tolerate it. The First Amendment still carries weight. For now.

But if he wants to use it at work, he also has to learn to live with the consequences.

Like damage to his reputation. And tanking workplace morale. And complaints that spark investigations, which culminate in fines and suspensions.

With so much focus on his bad behaviour and his punishment, it's easy to forget what Sarver still has.

His franchise, for one. It's worth $1.8 billion, according to Forbes.

And the benefit of the doubt from Silver, who has said in public that he believes that Sarver genuinely regrets his antics.

And now he has a year to think about how to be a better boss when he returns.

As for the $10 million, I'd call it a rounding error but it's more like tuition. The cost of a very public lesson in how not to treat people.