NEW YORK — NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday that he doesn’t “know how to measure” the punishment Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver received for making racist and misogynist remarks compared to what would happen to a team or league employee, saying that he “doesn’t have the right” to take away Sarver’s team.
“There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who is an employee,” Silver said during a news conference at a midtown Manhattan hotel Wednesday afternoon at the conclusion of the league’s fall meeting of its Board of Governors.
It also came a day after the league announced Sarver would receive a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension in the wake of an ESPN story in November 2021 detailing allegations of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s 17 years as owner.
“The equivalent of a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension, I don’t know how to measure that against a job,” Silver said, “but I have certain authority by virtue of this organization, and that’s what I exercised. I don’t have the right to take away his team. I don’t want to rest on that legal point because of course there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level.
“But to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver. Reputationally, it’s hard to even make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in somewhat of an anonymous fashion versus what is a huge public issue now around this person. There’s no neat answer here, other than owning property. The rights that come with owning an NBA team — how that’s set up within our constitution, what it would take to remove that team from his control — is a very involved process, and it’s different than holding a job.”
The NBA announced Sarver’s punishment Tuesday, along with releasing the full report conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The investigation found that during his time with the Suns and Mercury, Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.”
It also uncovered “instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees,” the league said in its statement announcing the conclusion of the investigation and the punishment, including “sex-related comments” and inappropriate comments on employees’ appearances.
At several points Wednesday, Silver referred to the fact that he was aware of more than what was publicly shared in the report, and that shaped his views on the situation in a way he was unable to share due to a confidentiality agreement signed as part of the investigation.
“From a personal standpoint, I was in disbelief to a certain extent about what I learned that had transpired over the last 18 years in the Suns’ organization,” Silver said. “I was saddened by it, disheartened. I want to, again, apologize to the former and, in some cases, current employees of the Phoenix Suns for what they had to experience. There’s absolutely no excuse for it. We addressed it. I, of course, have been following what’s been said since we issued those findings. Let me reiterate, the conduct is indefensible.
“I will say, though, that what I have access to is a bit different than the public because, while we issued this report, in the process of doing the investigation, the outside counsel who conducted this review committed to confidentiality to anyone who wanted it, which was the vast majority of those who were interviewed, plus they looked at cell phones, something like 80,000 documents. So I have access to information that the public doesn’t, and again, I’m able to look at the totality of the circumstances around those events. … I think that puts me in a different position ultimately as the person who has to render the ultimate judgment about what is a fair outcome here.”
Silver was also asked multiple times about one specific line in the league’s statement announcing both the unveiling of the report and the suspension: “The investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
When asked if he, personally, agreed with that statement, Silver only said “I accept” the findings of the committee that conducted the investigation. Of the five members on that committee, two were two Black men and two were women.
“I accept their work,” Silver said. “To follow what we believe is appropriate process here, to bring in a law firm, to have them spend essentially nine months on this, to do the extensive kinds of interviews they can, I’m not able to put myself in their shoes. I respect the work they’ve done, we’ve done.
“… The fact is I am given a factual record and then I make determinations based on that. I do accept what they found.”
Silver did say, however, that those findings were relevant in terms of determining the severity of Sarver’s punishment.
“It was relevant,” Silver said. “I think if they had made findings that, in fact, his conduct was motivated by racial animus, absolutely that would have had an impact on on the ultimate outcome here. But that’s not what they found.”
Silver also said that at no time during the investigation did he discuss the prospect of Sarver voluntarily agreeing to sell the Suns.
“Robert Sarver and I spoke several times along the way, and I allowed the investigation to unfold,” Silver said. “We didn’t prejudge it.”
The investigation into Sarver, and his punishment, have been compared to how the NBA handled the situation involving former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, when Silver suspended Sterling for life in the wake of audio recordings of Sterling making racist comments.
Silver, however, doesn’t agree that the two situations should be compared to one another.
“I think what we saw in the case of Donald Sterling was blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people. While it’s difficult to know what is in someone’s heart or in their mind, we heard those words.
“… In the case of Robert Sarver, I’d say, first of all, we’re looking at the totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he’s owned these teams, and ultimately we made a judgment, I made a judgment, that in the circumstances in which he had used that language and that behavior, that while, as I said, it was indefensible, is not strong enough. It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way, but that it was wholly of a different kind than what we saw in that earlier case.”
As far as Sarver’s penalty itself, the $10 million fine was the maximum the league was allowed to hand down. The one-year suspension, on the other hand, could have been longer, Silver said, but that it was ultimately his decision to make it a full calendar year.
He also went on to say that Sarver had, in conversations with Silver, taken “complete accountability and seemed fully remorseful.”
Silver added, however, that Sarver will be “on notice” moving forward.
“In terms of future behavior, there’s no question he’s on notice,” Silver said. “He knows that. I also think, though, if you look at the chronology of the report, most of this activity goes back, most of the inappropriate activity goes back many years.
“But you know, every day is a new day. It’s not as if we’ve closed the book. We’ve closed the book on these historic incidents. But anything going forward, I don’t think there’s any question that he will be scrutinized in terms of his behavior and speech.”