Robert Sarver’s conduct cannot go unnoticed

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Quick: who asked a woman: “I own you, are you one of those who belong to me?”

It is tempting to reply that the phrase comes from a slave owner in the United States of, say, 1863.

But no: it is one of many misogynistic, humiliating and sometimes racist insults pronounced according to an investigation by Baxter Holmes published in November by ESPN, Robert Sarver. Sarver has been the principal owner (of a group of nearly 20 businessmen) of the Phoenix Suns professional basketball team since 2004, 17 years ago, when he acquired the franchise for $401 million, a then-record amount.

The investigation documents dozens of cases of “racism, misogyny and abuse by Sarver, spanning nearly two decades.”

Thus, it shows how Sarver repeatedly and for years humiliated professional players, coaches, office staff, team executives, or family members of players, alluding to racist stereotypes.

According to the article, Sarver created an environment of sexism and humiliation against the team’s female employees, who described it as follows: “It breaks you… I’m hard to break, and it broke me.” “He ruined my life”, “I was thinking about killing myself”.

The Phoenix Suns are as we know part of the NBA. It is the most progressive professional sports organization, and the most committed to racial justice in the entire country.

In 2021, the NBA created a National Basketball Social Justice Coalition in response to protests over the police attack on Jacob Blake. And in 2014, just as its commissioner Adam Silver had taken office, the NBA fired Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers team for more than 20 years, for similar pronouncements, and forced him to sell the company.

That is why it is so striking that Sarver’s behavior was supposedly known by many for years. That they have not reacted to the fact that not once but repeatedly he was heard to freely use a derogatory term when referring to African-American people, and sexually explicit terms when speaking with female employees.

The ESPN team’s research is powerful.

It is based on no fewer than 70 interviews. Document a history of abuse, committed not just by the team owner. His repeated attitude normalized similar conduct on the part of other members of the leadership team, thus creating “a toxic environment”, as many of those interviewed defined it.

At first, the NBA sided with the owner. His spokesman Mike Bass said the league had not received any complaints of misconduct in the Suns organization. But later he began an investigation of the facts, for which he hired a prestigious law firm. That investigation is already months old and has not come to an end.

In reaction to this situation, civil rights activists have created a coalition determined not to let Sarver’s collection of fouls go unpunished, called the American Sports Accountability Project (ASAP).

This coalition sent this March 11 an open letter to Commissioner Silver with copies to all other team owners, denouncing Sarver and demanding his expulsion from the NBA. Additionally, they criticized that so much time had passed since the beginning of the investigation, expressing their fear that the delay would extend until the playoffs and lose public attention.

The Project includes members of the African-American civil rights organization founded by Jesse Jackson, on the one hand, and Latino activists such as Héctor Sánchez Barba, executive director and CEO of Mi Familia Vota, David Hernández, state director of LULAC (the League of Citizens Latin Americans United) in Arizona or former state congressman Dave Rodriguez of Arizona.

Let’s clarify: Sarver has denied almost all the accusations, both personally and through his seconds and through a law firm that he hired for that purpose. He has been actively defending himself, refuting the allegations one by one, despite the number of witnesses who testify to the contrary.

The reaction of the NBA continues to postpone. Perhaps they consider that the evidence is not conclusive enough, contrary to what happened, for example, with Sterling, of whose conduct two videos were released.

But it is not acceptable that they condition their decision on the existence of recordings or explicit filming of the events. It cannot be that for the abuses to be considered true, the victims must film them.

There is no reason for this to happen.

The facts discovered about Sarver’s behavior deserve a brief enumeration, because individually they might seem minor. Until one adds up the incidents.

There is, for example, his speech at the memorial of his partner Dick Heckmann where, rather than praising him, he insults him, with innumerable sexual allusions, insults and derogatory comments about women, mentioning the multiple times that the deceased had been unfaithful to his wife, in her presence. Or his insistence on hiring an African-American coach for his team, because “one (abusive word) understands another.”

It is then the accumulation of incidents, each of which perhaps for some is not in itself a reason to ask for his dismissal or resignation or replacement. This accumulation was what led to the formation of the ASAP project. It was what led them to say “enough”.

The final decision of the NBA should clarify who the real Robert Sarver is. Is he the one who put on a facade of support for his African-American players? Or is he the one who sees that as PR and actually shares opposing views?

Ultimately, that decision should remove Sarver from a position where he can do harm, so that his views and prejudices don’t further harm the NBA and the sports-loving public.

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