Robert Sarver begins promoting Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury

Amid mounting pressure from NBA players, sponsors and local government officials, and following his year-long ban for using racist and misogynist language, Robert Sarver announced plans Wednesday to sell the WNBA’s Phoenix Suns and Mercury.

The 60-year-old real estate developer said in a statement that he didn’t want to be a “distraction” and wanted “what’s best” for the organizations.

“As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness. I expected that the commissioner’s one-year suspension would give me the time to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love,” said Sarver. “But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible – that whatever good I have done or might do is outweighed by things I have said in the past. For these reasons, I am starting to look for buyers for the Suns and Mercury.”

Adam Silver was the “good” commissioner. Why waste that defending bad guys?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended Sarver for a year and fined him a maximum of $10 million last week after completing a lengthy investigation into workplace behavior that was launched following an ESPN.com article in November. However, Silver stopped him from giving Sarver a life ban, a sentence the commissioner previously imposed on former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014 for his racist remarks.

Prominent NBA stars including LeBron James, Chris Paul and Draymond Green, as well as National Basketball Players Association executive director Tamika Tremaglio, condemned Sarver’s behavior and suggested Silver’s punishment didn’t go far enough, and PayPal said it would not renew his contract as shirt sponsor for the Suns after that season if Sarver remained with the team he has owned since 2004. Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi and civil rights activists like Rev. Al Sharpton called for Sarver to step down, while Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and city council members issued a statement saying they were “appalled” by the move his behavior and planned to conduct their own investigation.

With the 2022-23 season set to open next month and team media days set to begin Sunday, Sarver’s decision to seek a sale for the Suns was met with relief across the league as he initially strongly denied ESPN.com’s allegations and known for his stubbornness. Although he apologized after Silver suspended him, Sarver disputed some of the report’s findings, and his legal representatives continued to dispute some of the allegations. There were fears that Sarver would meddle like Sterling, creating a protracted power struggle over the future of the suns and an unsustainable everyday life.

“I fully support Robert Sarver’s decision to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury,” Silver said in a statement Wednesday. “This is the right next step for the organization and the community.”

Silver noted last week that as commissioner he doesn’t have the power to unilaterally take the Suns from Sarver. Instead, the NBA Board of Governors would have had to vote Sarver out by a three-quarters majority, a difficult and time-consuming proposal that could have resulted in a legal battle with Sarver. However, the NBA’s decision to release the investigator’s report publicly exposed Sarver to widespread criticism and outrage. In the past, similar investigative reports have been summarized by the League rather than released in full.

“So proud to be part of a league dedicated to progress,” James tweeted Wednesday.

“We thank Mr. Sarver for his quick decision, which was in the best interest of our sports community,” NBPA President CJ McCollum said in a statement.

Investigators from the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz documented a long list of workplace misconduct violations in a 43-page report, including Sarver’s use of the N-word at least five times, repeated examples of sexist behavior, and multiple incidents Sarver has himself exposed to employees.

According to witnesses, Sarver used the n-word when recruiting a free agent in 2004, during a team building drill in 2012 or 2013, after an October 2016 game against the Golden State Warriors, and while telling a story about what a player’s family member was was what he had said as he boarded the team’s plane. According to two witnesses, Sarver quoted the family member as saying: “White people on the front lines, [n-words] Investigators found that Sarver, who is white, continued to use the insult phrase for years despite repeated warnings from colleagues that it was inappropriate.

Sarver’s offenses toward female employees included telling another she had to stop working on an assignment because her baby “needs her mom, not her dad,” asking another if she got “an upgrade.” – a euphemism for a breast augmentation – and telling another that she had “never seen anything this big” as he prepared to shower at the team’s facilities. In another incident, he berated a staff member for her performance in 2011, protested when she started crying, and then held a lunch for four female staff members, which was perceived by attendees as a means of resilience.

Investigators attributed some of Sarver’s behavior to his “sophomoric and inappropriate” sense of humor and his “lack of filter,” but they documented incidents that repeatedly crossed the line into harassment. While receiving a “fitness check” from a male employee, Sarver “unnecessarily dropped his underwear” as the employee knelt in front of him, exposing himself. Sarver also danced cymbal to cymbal with a male employee at a Christmas party, pulled down a male employee’s pants in front of colleagues during a 2014 charity event, and questioned at least one player on the 2009–10 team about personal grooming habits.

Under the terms of his suspension, Sarver has been barred from attending all NBA and WNBA games and team facilities, may not appear at public events on behalf of the Suns or the WNBA’s Mercury, and must not be involved in the business operations of his organization or league meetings. Sam Garvin, a longtime minority owner of the Suns, replaced Sarver on an interim basis.

“The racist old boys club in professional sports is officially closed,” Sharpton said in a statement. “We are entering a new era where treating black players like property is intolerable. Sarver’s decision today is the first step on the long road to justice for the Suns and Mercury – the staff, the players and the fans. It is imperative now that the NBA, both teams, the corporate sponsors and the new owner, whoever they may be, live up to their commitment to eradicate racism, misogyny and hatred.”

Throughout his tenure, Sarver was known as a frugal — and sometimes combative — owner who struggled to field winning teams after the initial success of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, who reached the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006 Phoenix missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons from 2011-2020 as Sarver cycled through coaches, hiring and firing executives and repeatedly striking in the NBA draft. During a particularly tumultuous period, Sarver fired coach Earl Watson after just three games in the 2017–18 season and fired his full-time replacement Igor Kokoskov after one season.

There were many mishaps along the way. In 2014, Sarver apologized to Suns fans because the San Antonio Spurs decided to rest several stars during a game in Phoenix. Spurs manager Gregg Popovich was blunt in reply by saying Sarver should have been wearing a “chicken suit” during his address. In 2017, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe famously tweeted “I don’t wanna be here,” a trade request he later claimed was an indication of his boredom at a hair salon. Then, in 2019, Sarver reportedly placed live goats in his general manager’s office in what appears to have been a motivational tactic.

But the arrival of coaches Monty Williams and Paul in recent years propelled the Suns back into the playoffs and onto the national stage. Phoenix reached the Finals for the first time since 1993 in 2021, winning a franchise-record 64 games last season despite the ongoing investigation into Sarver. With a talented roster centered around Paul, all-star guard Devin Booker, forward Mikal Bridges and center Deandre Ayton, the Suns go into the upcoming season as one of the West’s favorites.

The Suns issued a statement on Wednesday accepting Sarver’s decision and pledging to create, maintain and protect “a premium experience” for employees.

“We recognize the courage of those who have come forward in this process to share their stories and apologize to those injured,” the statement said. “We are on a journey that began before last November that has included changes in governance, staffing and accountability measures. While we are proud of our progress and the culture of respect and integrity we are building, we know there is still work to be done and relationships to be rebuilt.”

Sarver led a group that bought the Suns for around $400 million in 2004, and a recent Forbes estimate put the franchise’s current value at more than $1.8 billion. The Suns’ retail price could top $2 billion as NBA franchises have appreciated significantly in recent years and a new national media rights deal is on the horizon. After the Clippers sold for $2 billion in 2014, the Houston Rockets sold for $2.2 billion in 2017, and the 2019 Brooklyn Nets sold for $3.3 billion with the Barclays Center Arena) and Minnesota Timberwolves ( $1.5 billion) generated lucrative returns for their longtime owners.

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