Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver’s racist rhetoric and misogynistic behavior was troubling to many within the NBA family. But it wasn’t until PayPal said they wouldn’t do business with the Suns if he stayed that led him to put his NBA and WNBA team up for sale and effectively, get out of the NBA ownership game.
When NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the league’s “punishment” for Robert Sarver’s past indiscretions of racist rhetoric and misogynistic behavior, something seemed amiss.
For so many, the punishment—a yearlong ban from the team and a $10 million fine—wasn’t enough, especially at a time when the league is taking victory lap after victory lap for its efforts towards diversity, equity and inclusion.
behavior. 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.— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 14, 2022
“Read through the Sarver stories a few times now,” James wrote on Twitter. “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 behavior. 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.”
But see, the latter part of James’ Tweet is where he gets it wrong.
It does matter if you are an owner and commit clear and undeniable racist, sexist and misogynistic behavior.
That’s more than just my own personal opinion on it.
That sentiment comes from Silver himself.
“Owning property, the rights that come with owning a team, how that’s set up within our constitution ... is different than holding a job,” Silver told reporters following a meeting earlier this month with the league’s Board of Governors. “It just is when you own a team. It’s just a very different proposition.”
A different proposition and a different set of rules apparently.
It didn’t matter how badly Commissioner Silver and some of the league’s biggest stars wanted Sarver out of the league.
It wasn’t going to happen. Why?
Because Sarver realized what we all have come to understand with the NBA, and for that matter, corporate America.
Efforts to address racism, sexism and misogynistic behavior have their limits until the financial bottom line is impacted. Only then does swift, substantive change come about.
Sarver had no reason to walk away from the team after serving a one-year suspension.
There would be a few not-so-nice headlines upon his return, but soon the focus would shift back to the players and what’s happening on the court. In another year or two afterward, all would be forgotten or it would become an unsavory footnote that would only be brought up the next time an owner/player/league executive was caught committing a series of racist/sexist/misogynistic acts.
Rinse. Recycle. Resume business as usual.
But Paypal, a major sponsor of the Suns, screwed that up for Sarver when they made it clear that they would not associate their brand with the team if he were brought back into the fold.
“PayPal’s sponsorship with the Suns is set to expire at the end of the current season,” PayPal CEO and President Dan Schulman said in a statement. “In light of the findings of the NBA's investigation, we will not renew our sponsorship should Robert Sarver remain involved with the Suns organization, after serving his suspension.”
So Sarver did what most owners whose racist/sexist/misogynistic past catches up to them: he’s cashing out.
And while it’s still early to know what kind of financial windfall he’ll wind up with, early reports are that the team will be worth “at least” $2.5 billion which would make it the second-highest NBA team sale ever (Joseph Tsai bought the Brooklyn Nets in 2019 for $3.2 billion).
And remember, he bought the team for $401 million in 2004, which means he would be looking at walking away with six times the amount of his initial investment.
His public persona certainly takes a hit, but there are at least 2.5 billion reasons that make this, for Sarver, a worthwhile trade-off.
And that has become the price of clearing the league of leaders whose inexcusable words and deeds are hurtful to so many.
Then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant was caught on tape, which paved the way for him to sell the team for a then-record $2 billion.
This entire incident with Sarver reminds us that money, more than morality, is the path toward decisive change.
PayPal’s potential pull-out was a power move fueled by the potential loss of revenue. And Sarver’s announcement that he was putting the team and the WNBA Mercury up for sale (less than a week after PayPal’s statement) was also fueled by money.
The NBA has been a beacon of light for so many when it comes to progressive thinking along the lines of race and gender.
But the fallout from the Sarver situation dims that light a bit.