Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This past week, the NBA unveiled a 36-page, 12,045-word report conducted by an outside law firm that detailed a number of workplace atrocities committed by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. This piece will be much shorter than that, but I will still jump right to the point: the NBA once again took the coward’s path and in doing so put the responsibility for moral action on the shoulders of the players.

This story starts a long time ago (some would say the Garden of Eden) but we’ll pick it up on November 4, 2021. That’s when ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published an investigative report on the workplace culture of the Phoenix Suns and specifically their majority owner, Robert Sarver. It detailed a number of very concerning allegations against Sarver, including words and actions that would classify as sexist, racist, crude and cruel.

Sarver immediately denied the reports, and what is more, raked Holmes over the coals for it. Sarver and other Suns executives were cutting in their denials and counter-attack of Holmes, accusing him of harassment and a lack of journalistic integrity.

The NBA responded by initiating an outside investigation of Sarver and the Suns organization, and the results of that report were released this past Tuesday. The body of the report details numerous actions that are wildly inappropriate, with the following key findings:

  • Mr. Sarver, on at least five occasions during his tenure with the Suns/Mercury organization, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.
  • Mr. Sarver engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.
  • Mr. Sarver engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including yelling and cursing at them.

The report confirmed nearly everything Holmes had included in his original report, but after detailing that it made a curious moral judgment. It stated that “the investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.” This was and is an incredibly bizarre and seemingly unknowable claim.

Why and how is the independent law firm making a moral claim? They can’t know for sure what Sarver harbors in his heart, nor should it matter — his actions and the harm they inflict are clear, and his motivations matter only for his rehabilitation, not the protection of those people. Plus, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…

The NBA then concurrently announced the punishment for Robert Sarver: the maximum $10 million fine (Sarver is estimated to have a net worth over $800 million) and a year’s suspension. In other words, a drop in the financial bucket and a return to the team in just 365 days.

The NBA once again took the coward’s path and in doing so, put the responsibility for moral action on the shoulders of the players.

Adam Silver addressed the situation the following day, with the chance to clear up any misconceptions and explain why the league chose the punishment that it did. Perhaps he thought he was doing that, but what he actually did was obfuscate and stumble his way into admitting the league treated its owners differently when it came to moral consequences and tried to spin a narrative that Sarver had shown private remorse.

Silver is technically employed by the owners. He can’t just go up to the podium and put one of his employers on blast. Yet there was a clear path to take a moral stand here, to speak to what the NBA’s beliefs are and explain how the NBA’s discipline met that standard. Yet all he did was offer paper-thin excuses for a man with a yearslong track record of workplace atrocities. The commissioner of the NBA, an incredibly diverse league of players and employees, had an opportunity to lead out. Instead, he hid.

Eight years ago, when Silver took over, he immediately had to deal with Donald Sterling. But that had a smoking gun this did not — an audio recording. Sponsors began pulling out and there was the momentum to ban him for life. Even then he wasn’t “kicked out” or forced to sell the LA Clippers; his wife maneuvered him into doing that, not the league.

Here there isn’t video or audio, just plenty of witnesses and a major legal report that Robert Sarver crossed the “line” again and again — even after being told of the line again and again. If you want to be that person you could try to place Sterling in a different category of “sleazeball” with his housing practices and racist parties, but that’s an exercise for defense lawyers and fellow sleazeballs.

If Silver was bold in taking action, it could have consequences for the other owners, who are his bosses. You only have to look at the NFL to see an owner who bends over backward to protect the owners. Roger Gooddell sees his job as taking the heat off of the NFL owners, be that by obfuscating wrongdoing or becoming the target himself.

Silver should be different. He purports himself and the modern NBA as a place of social justice, and yet refuses to put his money where his mouth is. From dealings with China to hateful cancer among the NBA’s own ranks, Silver chooses the path most lucrative. Instead of being the agent for change, he hides behind political speech and instead puts the onus on another group: the players. If something is going to happen, the players themselves have to speak up and drive change.

Sometimes they do just that. During the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the Orlando “Bubble”, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their game against the Orlando Magic in the wake of yet another incidence of a black person shot by the police. They worked from the locker room to connect with NBA officials and Wisconsin government officials and secured commitments for action before going out to play.

As bold and noble as the Bucks’ soft protest was, it shouldn’t have been required by them. To simplify things, the oppressed shouldn’t be the only ones sticking up to the oppressors. The NBA, led by billionaire, (largely) white owners, should stand up for the rights of their players, employees and humanity in general — not when it’s easy or convenient or even lucrative, but when it requires real sacrifice and hard decisions and the loss of power and standing.

Making charitable donations or protecting a day on the NBA calendar for personnel to vote are both great steps, as are many of the other ways that the NBA takes steps towards its values. Yet those are not painful things for the league, and generally, foster goodwill that translates into more money in its coffers.

Here the path is difficult. A man who is given near limitless power in running an NBA franchise has been investigated and found to have committed acts of racism, sexism, abuse and deception again and again over decades of running his team. Morality demands strong action and protection of the people in the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organizations.

If Adam Silver and the NBA were to place a lifetime ban on Robert Sarver, he may choose to come at them with legal action. He would still be in possession of the teams, able to exert some amount of influence on the organizations even through indirect channels. Removing him by a supermajority of other NBA owners would set a dangerous precedent for removing any of them down the line.

Good. The owners should be faced with consequences for their actions. If they decide to violate the NBA’s code of conduct, the law and common human decency, they should face the loss of their team. Being forced to sell their team would be embarrassing, but given that they would still reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profit it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Silver works for the NBA owners, but that doesn’t mean he should compromise his morals or put people at risk because his employers want to protect themselves from some future, theoretical slippery slope. He needs to stand up for what is right. He may not have as many Instagram followers or sell as many jerseys as the league’s stars, but he is in a unique position of power and needs to use that power for good, not for the protection of billionaire owners who want to escape the consequences of their own actions.

It’s not easy for the players to know what to do in these situations, either. In a recent interview, Stephen Curry stated that he wished he had advocated harder to boycott an NBA playoff game back when the Donald Sterling news broke in 2014. Chris Paul and the LA Clippers decided to make a silent protest and continue playing the game that was both their passion and their livelihood.

Paul spoke up this time around, although he came short of calling for specific action:

Like many others, I reviewed the report. I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read. This conduct especially towards women is unacceptable and must never be repeated.

— Chris Paul (@CP3) September 15, 2022

LeBron James got a little closer to demanding a specific action, implying that Sarver should no longer be a part of the league:

behavior. I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. 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 it.

— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 14, 2022

It shouldn’t be up to them, though. They are employees of the NBA; they should be able to expect that their employers keep them safe and foster a work environment that is at least approaching ethically healthy. Instead, Adam Silver hides behind legal jargon and half-hearted excuses and forces black people to stand up for themselves. And who is standing up for the many women harassed and demeaned by Sarver?

It should be the league standing up for them. There is something to be said for caution in the knee-jerk, public theater of the Me Too movement and cancel culture. In the hunt to be better advocates for the historically oppressed, some people have swung too far the other way. On many issues, there is room to reasonably disagree. The NBA is not being asked to weigh in on political candidates here or make a decision that ostracizes part of their fan base in a major way.

Michael Jordan once said “Republicans buy shoes too,” illustrating the strain professional athletes feel in making out-of-context political statements that can have significant ripple effects on their careers. Curry has been called out by both sides of the political spectrum for being a reasonable human being whose views don’t line up perfectly with any one political party. Being patient and cautious in identifying the facts of a situation and responding in a well-thought-out way can be a wise approach.

This is not that. 36 pages of findings from 100 people detailing many, many morally reprehensible behavior. Far from due process, this is a dud of a process that led to this punishment. This was a slap on the wrist by the league to someone who deserves to no longer be affiliated with the league in any way.

This story isn’t going away, which is what the league hoped would happen. The league’s biggest stars have already spoken up, and more will do so as training camps open up and the media asks questions on the topic of certain players. Suns head coach Monty Williams and the rest of its players will certainly be grilled for their responses. The NBAPA has issued a statement, as has a minority owner of the Suns, calling for the permanent removal of Sarver.

Sadly, for the league to actually change its response, it will take a financial cost to be enacted. PayPal has already announced the end of its partnership with the Suns, and more sponsors could follow. If the league is facing a significant loss of revenue, then it may finally get moving. Why would sponsors pull out? Because the players are making this into a big deal.

The NBA botched this entire process thus far. Surely this is not the first they have heard of Robert Sarver and his workplace turpitude. They waited until the media broke the story, and then after a long investigation (it’s to their credit that they conducted one) rolled out a mild punishment that doesn’t come close to matching the crime.

There is still time to alter their course and to do so immediately before they are forced to. Silver can’t force Sarver to sell the Suns without the owner’s vote, but he can impose a lifetime ban, effective immediately. He can apologize for soft-pedaling the punishment on Sarver and for defending him in the press conference, and he can be harsh and honest with his condemnation of Sarver and his actions now. He can do what he should have done a week ago, and it will count for something.

The NBA’s players are some of the most outspoken athletes in the world, but in this situation, they shouldn’t need to speak up. Adam Silver and the NBA should have spoken first. In a situation this morally clear, they decided to paint it gray and punt ethical action down the line. In a country where racial inequality still has far-reaching consequences, the NBA is just one of many white-led businesses refusing to do what is right in the name of protecting the powerful and clutching the profits.

May the day come when the privileged begin to call out their own and take the stand for decency.

For now, yet again, the players will have to make a stand. Adam Silver and the NBA’s owners will be in the corner hiding.