The backlash to the slap on the wrist one-year suspension and $10 million fine for Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver could now hit the team’s and the league’s pocketbook.
PayPal, the online payment company that has a jersey sponsorship deal with the Suns and WNBA Mercury, will let that sponsorship expire after this season if Sarver is still involved with the team. Here is the statement from PayPal CEO and President Dan Schulman:
“PayPal is a values-driven company and has a strong record of combatting racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination. We have reviewed the report of the NBA league’s independent investigation into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and have found his conduct unacceptable and in conflict with our values. PayPal’s sponsorship with the Suns is set to expire at the end of the current season. 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.
“While we strongly reject the conduct of Robert Sarver, we remain supportive of the team, its players and the experienced and diverse talent now leading the organization, including Head Coach, Monty Williams, General Manager, James Jones, Assistant General Manager, Morgan Cato, and Senior Vice President of People and Culture, Kim Corbitt. ”
That follows the open letter Thursday from Jahm Najafi, the Suns’ vice chairman and the second-largest share owner of the team, who called for Sarver to resign.
“Similar conduct by any CEO, executive director, president, teacher, coach, or any other position of leadership would warrant immediate termination. The fact that Robert Sarver “owns” the team does not give him a license to treat others differently than any other leader. The fact that anyone would find him fit to lead because of this “ownership” position is forgetting that NBA teams belong to the communities they serve…. Therefore, in accordance with my commitment to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism and bias, as Vice Chairman of the Phoenix Suns, I am calling for the resignation of Robert Sarver.”
All-Star point guard Suns’ leader among its players, Chris Paul, said the NBA’s sanctions “fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior.”
An NBA investigation into Sarver and the Suns, prompted by an ESPN story last year, found numerous incidents over an 18-year period where Sarver crossed all kinds of lines in workplace behavior: He used the N-word at least five times (after being told by team staff he can never use that word, even when repeating what someone else said), telling a pregnant woman she wouldn’t continue in her role because her baby needed a mommy, berating other female employees (and commenting on their appearance), emailing pornography go male Suns executives, he stood in the shower naked in front of other male employees after taking a shower in the coach’s shower area, and in a larger sense created a hostile work environment where more than 100 current and former employees came forward incidents of misogyny, racism, or inappropriate behavior.
While there have been calls for harsher penalties for Sarver — including removing him from power with the team permanently, if not forcing him to sell his shares — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stood at the podium this week and took the bullets for the other owners, who are hesitant to come down on one of their own (because they fear they could be next). Silver’s are tied unless a vast majority of the other 29 owners back a move. That has yet to happen with Sarver (as far as we know). However, as the public backlash swells and starts to hit the teams in the pocketbook — as PayPal has threatened to do — the sentiments of the other owners, no matter how reluctant, might begin to change.
This is why what Schulman and PayPal did was a big step. The question now is will other team sponsors follow PayPal’s lead?