Adam Silver banned Donald Sterling. What’s different about Robert Sarver?

By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer

Eight years ago, Adam Silver stood in front of a room filled with reporters and delivered an impassioned, unyielding rebuke of then-LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, setting the tone for his tenure as NBA commissioner.

Silver, who had been in the job for only three months at the time, banned Sterling for life from the NBA after audio was leaked revealing Sterling’s racist views. Silver made a strong statement that bigotry would not be tolerated in the NBA, even from billionaire owners. The commissioner was widely praised for his handling of the situation, including a strong endorsement from players. 

Nearly a decade later, Silver had a similar opportunity to show where both he and the league draw the line on abhorrent behavior. But this time, he might have hit his first major speed bump as commissioner. 

All eyes were on Silver Wednesday after a lengthy investigation by an independent law firm into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver revealed that he has a proven track record of using racially insensitive language and demonstrating misogyny in the workplace. This time, Silver chose to ban Sarver from the NBA for a year and issue him the maximum $10 million fine. 

Many around the league felt that the punishment was soft, including some of the most prominent players.

LeBron James tweeted, in part, “Our league definitely got this wrong,” adding, “There is no place for misogyny, sexism or racism in any work place.” 

Suns star and former longtime players association president Chris Paul chimed in, too, tweeting that he was “horrified” by the report and “the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior.”

Silver, who spoke to reporters Wednesday in New York following a Board of Governors meeting, said the Sterling and Sarver situations were “dramatically different.” Silver said he looked at the totality of Sarver’s 18-year tenure when deciding his punishment, adding that while Sarver’s language and behavior were “beyond the pale” it was “wholly of a different kind” from Sterling’s.

The investigation, which was conducted by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm, found that Sarver “repeated the N-word” at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.” And that he “made many sex-related comments in the workplace” and “made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women.”

But the report also said there was “no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”

It was a bit confusing. 

So Sarver used racial slurs but wasn’t racist? He was inappropriate toward women but not misogynistic? Where does the NBA draw the line?

Silver was tasked with trying to explain it all. He pointed out that he wasn’t the one who conducted the investigation or interpreted its findings. (It was actually the same firm that looked into Sterling.)

One reporter at Wednesday’s news conference pointed out that the investigation revealed Sarver said, “I hate diversity,” was repeatedly disrespectful to Black employees who interpreted it as race-based, and used the N-word to impersonate others despite being asked to stop. How is that not race-based animus, they asked?

“I think that that’s in some ways a legal distinction,” said Silver, who holds a JD from the University of Chicago law school, adding that while investigators could never know what’s in a man’s heart, they found that those things weren’t race-based.  

The truth is, this entire situation revealed how much Silver’s hands are tied. To remove an owner, a three-fourths majority vote is needed from the Board of Governors. (Silver said removing Sarver wasn’t discussed by the league’s 30 owners.)

Not to mention, there would likely have been a lengthy legal battle. After Sterling was banned for life, he sued the NBA for more than $1 billion, contending his constitutional rights were violated. (He settled the lawsuit in November 2016, though terms were not disclosed.)

Considering the report on Sarver found no racial or gender-based animus, it would have been incredibly difficult for Silver to push forward with a draconian punishment.

That being said, it’s unsettling to many around the league that Sarver will return to power in a year. And the findings of the report only open more questions.

First, how seriously is misogyny taken by the league?

According to the report, Sarver “told a pregnant employee that she would be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother.” He also publicly “berated a female employee” and then claimed “women cry too much.”

Second, what defines racism in the NBA’s view?

And finally — one of the key distinctions between Sterling and Sarver — does there need to be physical proof in the form of a tape or a video of racism, misogyny or abuse for the needle to be moved enough for severe action to be taken?

There’s no doubt that the public would have reacted with strong anger if there were a tape of a 60-year-old white man using the N-word, even if he was using it to reiterate other’s words as he says he was. And there obviously would have been widespread rage if he were on video commenting on female employees’ bodies.

Regardless, moving forward, if Sarver’s judgment is so poor that he thinks it’s OK to use the N-word — in any circumstance — isn’t that deeply concerning? If his judgment is so off base that he degrades women who work for him, how are any of the women within the organization ever supposed to feel safe?

Considering Sarver is hardly being punished for that type of behavior, is the league conveying that perhaps it wasn’t that bad?

One reporter dug into the heart of the matter at the news conference, essentially asking: Any of us would have been fired from our jobs for any one of those offenses, so why wasn’t Sarver? Why is he held to a different standard?

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

For a commissioner who reacted with such decisiveness around Sterling, who reacted with unflinching leadership around COVID-19 and who reacted with empathy around social injustice, his news conference on Sarver left many with furrowed brows.

“I have access to information that the public doesn’t,” Silver told reporters, adding that there’s a lot of nuance with Sarver that he’s aware of — and we’re not.

The firm that conducted the investigation into Sarver apparently offered the 320 current and former Suns employees it interviewed the option of confidentiality. So, yes, there are things Silver can’t blatantly discuss. But it would have been helpful to understand those things, even if only through generalities.

Silver strongly denounced Sarver’s behavior and said he has evolved over the years. 

The onus of proving that shouldn’t have been on Silver. 

But it fell on him, and we were left with more questions than answers, a surprise coming from Silver and the league he has captained since the Sterling situation.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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