Owning a WNBA team does not excuse your bigotry, Robert Sarver
Hi. I'm mad.
Women’s sports are not your shield
Last November, Baxter Holmes at ESPN published a blockbuster investigation, “Allegations of racism and misogyny within the Phoenix Suns: Inside Robert Sarver’s 17-year tenure as owner.” The NBA responded by commissioning an independent investigation, conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
Considering Sarver also owns the Phoenix Mercury, many in the women’s basketball community — myself included — have been very curious about what the investigation would uncover.
Well, on Tuesday it was released, confirming Holmes’s reporting, and then some. The report found that Sarver “has engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards” including “the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”
Some specifics include saying the N-word at least five times, telling a pregnant employee she would not be able to do her job after becoming a mother, and frequently making “crude or otherwise inappropriate comments about the physical appearance and bodies of female employees and other women.” The NBA responded by fining Sarver $10 million and suspending him for one year.
(I’m not going to go into nitty-gritty details on the report in this newsletter, but you can read the whole thing yourself and read ESPN’s breakdown. Also, check out Howard Beck at Sports Illustrated and Tom Ziller over at Good Morning It’s Basketball, who both eloquently eviscerate the NBA’s paltry punishment for Sarver.)
I want to zoom in on just one paragraph. It’s not even a paragraph written by the investigators, but rather by Sarver’s lawyer, Thomas A. Clare, on behalf of his client. It’s part of a memo attached to the end of the 39-page report, entitled, “Re: Robert Sarver’s Longstanding Commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice.”
In his opening paragraph, Clare calls the ESPN story “defamatory,” saying it is “demonstrably false” that Sarver “promoted a workplace culture of racism, misogyny, and sexual harassment.”
In the very next paragraph, Clare writes:
Robert Sarver’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is part of his DNA. Although he is best-known for his position with the Suns, Mr. Sarver is one of few NBA owners who continues to support and advance the development of women’s professional basketball. He recently invested $7 million to provide the Phoenix Mercury with a state-of-the-art training and practice facility. The world class center includes cutting-edge technology and exercise capabilities and employs three full-time chefs to cater to the players’ dietary and nutritional needs.
That’s right. The very first reason that Sarver provides for why he is not racist and sexist is that he owns a WNBA team. Friends? I’m fuming.
HOW FUCKING DARE YOU use women’s sports to shield yourself against accusations of sexism and racism! I thought that the entire Kelly Loeffler fiasco ended that charade for good, but I guess I’m mistaken. The gall is nauseating.
It reminds me of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Kavanaugh was facing an allegation of sexual assault and paraded the girls’ basketball team he coached in front of the press. Let’s be very clear about this: Supporting girls’ and women’s sports is a good thing to do. It does not make you a good person, nor does it give you a get-out-of-jail-free card for bigotry.
Also? Sarver/Clare’s entire paragraph doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny:
I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Mercury to know how hands-on or hands-off Sarver is as an owner. I do know that in 2019, Washington Mystics and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis told me that he was the only NBA owner that physically attended WNBA owner meetings. Leonsis and Sarver are two of the five NBA owners that also operate a WNBA team, along with Joseph Tsai (Brooklyn Nets/New York Liberty1), Herbert Simon (Indiana Pacers/Indiana Fever), and Glen Taylor2 (Minnesota Timberwolves/Minnesota Lynx.) That certainly puts Sarver's dedication to supporting and advancing the development of women's basketball into question.
Now, let’s talk about this facility that Sarver flaunts, the “state-of-the-art training and practice facility” that he invested $7 million into for the Mercury. It sounds impressive! But I do think context matters. First off, I am not sure exactly where that $7 million figure came from. A 2019 report from Cronkite News — which was linked in Clare’s letter — said the practice facility cost $45 million and was being “privately funded by the Suns.” The facility was built as part of a deal for a $230 million renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena. The city of Phoenix put $150 million towards that renovation. You will notice that all of the numbers I am mentioning are quite a lot bigger than $7 million!
But it makes sense that the exact investment amount for the Mercury is hard to pin down — because while this training facility certainly benefited the Mercury, it was primarily built for the Suns to keep the organization on pace with other NBA franchises. Sarver would have needed to build this facility even if he didn’t own the Mercury. In fact, on the Locked on Women’s Basketball Podcast, Hayden Cilley and Alex Simon (current and former Mercury beat reporters for The Next), note that Sun signage is far more prominent at the practice facility than Mercury signage. This was not an investment *specifically* for women’s basketball, and painting it as such is just audaciously disingenuous.
Now, I don’t know what happens from here. I would certainly like for more WNBA players and owners to speak out against Sarver’s behavior, and to make it clear there’s no space for that in the league. (Though I do want to give the Mercury players some grace right now, as they just wrapped up one of the most trying seasons in WNBA history.) It is notable that in the NBA, Suns star Chris Paul spoke out against Sarver, and LeBron James directly called for him to be ousted from the NBA.
Just two years ago, WNBA players stuck together and spoke out against then-Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler’s racism and sexism spewed in her Senate campaign, and helped force Loeffler to sell the team. This situation isn’t synonymous, because Sarver owns the Suns as well and due to finances, NBA players are going to have far more power to impact action.
But the WNBA has to be a part of this conversation, just not in the way Sarver would like. While I don’t know of any reports of him specifically treating WNBA players abusively, I keep thinking about how he told a female employee that she wouldn’t be able to return to her job after having a baby. That very man has been on the other side of the bargaining table (when he bothered to show up, at least) as WNBA players have been fighting for better maternity rights over the past 18 years. It’s just not acceptable for that to continue. Because the WNBA isn’t a shield, it’s a force of nature.
When I spoke with Leonsis, Tsai had only owned the Liberty for about six months. Before that, James Dolan, the owner of the New York Knicks, owned the team.
While Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez did buy the Timberwolves and Lynx from Glen Taylor in 2021, they will not become majority owners of the clubs until 2023.