NBA embraces mediocrity by keeping owner Robert Sarver around

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I’ve been a fan of the Phoenix Suns my entire life.

Don’t fret, this isn’t some pull-at-the-heartstrings story of why team owner Robert Sarver being suspended over repeated instances of racism and sexism damaged me personally. 

My sole reason for mentioning my fandom, in fact, is just to make clear that I’m fully aware of Sarver’s mediocrity, which he has demonstrated in ample measure. (This is, after all, the guy who allowed his team to draft Dragan Bender with the fourth overall pick in 2016 … and followed it up with Marquis Chriss. SMH.)

In Sarver, the NBA bought into mediocrity all around: a relatively mediocre businessman (one of the cheapest, least-wealthy owners in the league) who has historically fielded mediocre teams and who — worst of all — demonstrates mediocre character.

And now the NBA has bought into Sarver’s mediocre mea culpas for what’s far and away his most shameful conduct. This news release from the Suns, for example, would have you believe the organization has already resolved most of the issues described. 

The league, for the record, commissioned a report that found Sarver repeatedly used the “N-word,” touched employees inappropriately and made inappropriate comments about employees’ appearance throughout his 18 years as majority owner of the franchise. Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, apologized in a statement and said he took “full responsibility for what I have done.”

The NBA on Tuesday announced that Sarver will serve a mere one-year suspension and pay a $10 million fine (the highest possible under current league rules) after concluding he engaged in years of workplace abuse and misconduct toward women and Black employees. Asked why Sarver skirted harsher punishment that would have been handed down to other employees, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made clear Sarver was given preferential treatment because he owns a team

“There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who is an employee,” Silver said.

Let’s state the obvious: It’s hard to pry a team from its owner, as the litigious expulsion of racist ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling proved. But that difficulty would be the NBA’s problem to handle — not ours. As are the PR issues surrounding Sarver’s continued involvement with the league, which are unlikely to end anytime soon. 

Suns point guard Chris Paul, who is president of the NBA players association, released a statement saying he thought Sarver’s punishment was too light. 

LeBron James, unquestionably the biggest star in the NBA, essentially said the same thing. 

The executive director of the NBA players association, Tamika Tremaglio, said Sarver “should never hold a managerial position within our league again.”

And a Suns part owner who doubles as the team’s vice chairman has called on Sarver to resign

All this bodes horribly for the reputation of the NBA, which has leaned into its public portrayal as the most liberal of America’s foremost sports leagues. In the same year the NBA honored the late Hall of Famer Bill Russell and touted the Celtics icon’s legacy of anti-racism, it’s providing refuge to at least one racist, sexist white dude who embodies the privilege Russell opposed and, in some cases, suffered under.

We can note the same hypocrisy with the league’s “Lean In” initiative, which ostensibly exists to fight against women being forced out and kept out of leadership positions — that is, the kind of women Sarver marginalized with his sexist behavior. It’s hard to countenance the NBA’s meager punishment for a known sexual deviant, given its claims of supporting women in the workplace. Impossible, even. 

Which is why Sarver’s mediocrity is so injurious to the league. Sure, other NBA owners may be equally lecherous and offensive in their roles. But, simply put, Sarver is the public face of everything wrong with the NBA. His glaring character flaws are giving the league a black eye, and the league will have to wear it as long as he remains the owner of the Phoenix Suns.

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