On the same day NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended his decision to suspend Phoenix Suns’ owner Robert Sarver for one year, others strengthened calls for harsher penalties.
Among the loudest voices: LeBron James.
The Lakers’ star tweeted his disapproval of Sarver’s suspension and $10 million fine on Wednesday afternoon, saying, “Our league definitely got this wrong,” and, “There is no place in this league for that kind of … behavior.” While not formally calling for Sarver to sell the team he’s owned for the last 18 years, James’ dissatisfaction spoke to an undercurrent of NBA voices who believe Sarver was not punished severely enough.
“I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership,” James added. “But this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any work place. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team. We hold our league up as an example of our values and this aint (sic) it.”
After a November 2021 ESPN report highlighted instances of racist and sexist comments by Sarver last year, the NBA conducted a formal investigation which found that the 60-year-old had mistreated employees, used racial epithets (despite being told by others not to do so) and made sexually inappropriate jokes and comments in the workplace. Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, will not participate in any league business or enter any league facility in the next year.
One of the league’s loudest and most outspoken voices, James is hardly alone in his criticism. Silver acknowledged he had talked with several players since the report was released Tuesday who were “disheartened” by its findings. Silver notably forced Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of team ownership after embarrassing tapes of the billionaire real estate developer’s racist views were leaked, but Silver said Wednesday that Sarver’s case was distinct in key ways from Sterling.
“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,” Silver said. “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.”
Silver added that the suspension and the fine were the strongest possible punishments he could administer and that other factors (including Sarver’s track record with hiring people of color in his organization) offered additional context to his ultimate punishment.
When pressed by a reporter to explain how a team owner faced suspension when a team employee might well be fired, Silver was forced to acknowledge there was a distinction.
“I don’t have the right to take away his team,” he said. “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.
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“But to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver,” Silver added. “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.”
It’s possible that the NBA looked to avoid some of the thorny legal issues that arose when it ousted Sterling – with much more vocal player and personnel outrage – in 2014. Sterling sued the league, and the case was not settled for two years.
Few of the league’s high-profile players have offered dissent as explicitly and publicly as James has. But notably, NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio told ESPN she thinks Sarver “should never hold a managerial position within our league again.”
Suns guard Chris Paul, who spent eight years as the NBA players’ union president and was a member of the Clippers when Sterling was forced to sell the team, expressed his disappointment with the punishment as well.
“I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior,” he wrote on Twitter. “My heart goes out to all of the people that were affected.”