The underwhelming “slap on the wrist” the NBA gave Suns owner Robert Sarver after a lengthy investigation turned up racism, misogyny, and toxic work culture he had created with the Suns — a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine — was as far as the other owners and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would go as a first step. They feared pushback and lawsuits from Sarver if they took a bigger first step.
What Silver hoped for — and got a little lucky to get — was genuine pressure from players and the media for a harsher punishment. However, what the Silver really needed to make a change was for Suns and league sponsors to pull back — hit the owners in the pocketbook and suddenly they aren’t so reticent to act.
Silver got that and it wasn’t just PayPal, the Suns/Mercury jersey patch sponsor who said it would not renew next season if Sarver still ran the team. There was serious behind-the-scenes concerns about other team and league sponsors, something Ramona Shelburne detailed on ESPN’s NBA Today.
“There was a lot of private pressure on Robert Sarver behind the scene. We heard PayPal, but there were a lot of other league sponsors and team sponsors that were lining up to pull away from the Suns and not be publicly associated with them. There was also the pressure applied by other owners and Adam Silver behind the scenes. Adam Silver is obviously very good at applying pressure when needed to be and facilitating these types of conversations and discussions to get to this place.”
This is similar to what led Adam Silver to ban then Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life back in 2014 — public pressure was one thing, but when major NBA sponsors started pulling back from any association with the Clippers (State Farm, Carmax, Corona, many others) Silver had the green light from the other owners to take a harsh stand. (Sterling ultimately only sold the team because of a machiavellian move by his wife, Shelly Sterling.)
From the moment the disturbing details of Sarver’s actions became public with the report (and even before that after the ESPN report last November), Suns’ business operations people were trying to find ways to put sponsors at ease. But with public pressure starting to grow — in a league that prides itself on a progressive mindset of inclusion and diversity — there was only so much that could be done. Sarver recognized the situation and stepped aside, albeit in a statement where he weakly tries to come off as the victim.
“As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness,” Sarver said in his statement. “I expected that the commissioner’s one-year suspension would provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love.
“But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible – that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past. For those reasons, I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury.”
As Michael Holley wisely said on Brother From Another today, men of faith shouldn’t have to tell you they are with their words, their actions should show it.
“I fully support the decision by Robert Sarver to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “This is the right next step for the organization and community.”
It is the right step, but it is only because of behind-the-scenes pressure.