Silver: Didn’t have right to take Suns from Sarver

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NEW YORK — NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Wednesday said the one-year suspension given to Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver for making racist and misogynist remarks could have been longer, but that he didn’t “have the right to take away his team.”

While Silver said Sarver was “on notice” in terms of future behavior, the key conclusion from the five-member committee that spent nine months working on the investigation was that Sarver’s use of slurs was not motivated “by racial or gender-based animus.”

The NBA on Tuesday announced Sarver would receive a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension in the wake of an ESPN story in November 2021 detailing allegations of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s 17 years as owner.

“It was relevant,” Silver said of the committee’s conclusion. “I think if they had made findings that, in fact, his conduct was motivated by racial animus, absolutely that would have had an impact on the ultimate outcome here. But that’s not what they found.”

And for that reason, Silver handed down the maximum fine allowed by the league. But he said the lack of racial animus was why the suspension for Sarver was just for a full calendar year and not more.

“I have certain authority by virtue of this organization, and that’s what I exercise,” Silver said. “I don’t have the right to take away his team. I don’t want to rest on that legal point because of course there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level. But, to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver.”

The NBA on Tuesday released the report conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The investigation found that during his time with the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury, Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.”

The investigation also uncovered “instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees,” including “sex-related comments” and inappropriate comments on employees’ appearances.

The league’s punishment has been criticized by some. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James took to social media Wednesday, saying in part: “Our league definitely got this wrong.”

Silver said it was hard to compare “somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in somewhat of an anonymous fashion” to what Sarver did.

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

At several points Wednesday, Silver said that he was aware of more than what was publicly shared in the report and that he was unable to disclose more due to a confidentiality agreement signed as part of the investigation to anybody who wanted it.

“From a personal standpoint, I was in disbelief to a certain extent about what I learned that had transpired over the last 18 years in the Suns organization,” Silver said. “I was saddened by it, disheartened. I want to, again, apologize to the former and, in some cases, current employees of the Phoenix Suns for what they had to experience. There’s absolutely no excuse for it. We addressed it. I, of course, have been following what’s been said since we issued those findings. Let me reiterate, the conduct is indefensible.”

Silver said having access to that unpublished, confidential material played a part in the punishment that was given to Sarver.

“I’m able to look at the totality of the circumstances around those events,” Silver said. “… I think that puts me in a different position ultimately as the person who has to render the ultimate judgment about what is a fair outcome here.”

The committee that conducted the investigation included two Black men and two women among its five members.

“I accept their work,” Silver said of the committee. “To follow what we believe is appropriate process here, to bring in a law firm, to have them spend essentially nine months on this, to do the extensive kinds of interviews they can, I’m not able to put myself in their shoes. I respect the work they’ve done, we’ve done.”

The Sarver investigation and punishment has been compared to how the NBA handled the situation involving former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, when Silver suspended Sterling for life in the wake of audio recordings of Sterling making racist comments.

Silver, however, doesn’t agree that the two situations should be compared to one another.

“I think what we saw in the case of Donald Sterling was blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people. While it’s difficult to know what is in someone’s heart or in their mind, we heard those words. … In the case of Robert Sarver, I’d say, first of all, we’re looking at the totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he’s owned these teams, and ultimately we made a judgment — I made a judgment — that in the circumstances in which he had used that language and that behavior, that while, as I said, it was indefensible, is not strong enough.

“It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way, but that it was wholly of a different kind than what we saw in that earlier case.”

At no time during the investigation did Silver discuss the prospect of Sarver voluntarily agreeing to sell the Suns.

“Robert Sarver and I spoke several times along the way, and I allowed the investigation to unfold,” Silver said. “We didn’t prejudge it.”

Silver also went on to say that Sarver had taken “complete accountability and seemed fully remorseful.”

“Every day is a new day. It’s not as if we’ve closed the book,” Silver said. “We’ve closed the book on these historic incidents. But anything going forward, I don’t think there’s any question that he will be scrutinized in terms of his behavior and speech.”

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