PHOENIX – Bowing to what he called an “unforgiving climate,” Robert Sarver on Wednesday said that he planned to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury amid public pressure after a National Basketball Association (NBA) investigation found that he had mistreated team employees for years.

It was a swift turnabout for Sarver, who seemed determined to hold onto his stakes in both basketball franchises after the NBA last week fined him US$10 million (S$14.2 million) and suspended him from team operations for one year.

According to the investigation’s report, he had engaged in more than a decade of workplace misconduct, including using racial slurs, making sexual remarks and treating women inequitably.

But following the punitive measures, Sarver – and the NBA – faced mounting public pressure to levy a harsher punishment for behaviour NBA commissioner Adam Silver had described as “beyond the pale”.

In a statement on Wednesday, Sarver said his one-year suspension would have given him time to “make amends and remove my personal controversy” from the teams that he owns.

“But in our current unforgiving climate,” he said, “it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible – that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past.”

‘In the best interest for community’

In separate statements, Silver and Suns Legacy Partners LLC, the ownership group of the Suns and Mercury, said Sarver’s decision was the best choice for the organisation and the community.

“We also know that today’s news does not change the work that remains in front of us,” the ownership group said, adding: “We acknowledge the courage of the people who came forward in this process to tell their stories and apologise to those hurt.”

An NBA spokesman declined to comment when asked whether Silver had pushed Sarver to sell the teams. Last week, the NBA commissioner defended the fine and suspension issued to Sarver as fair punishment and said he had not asked him to voluntarily sell the teams. The NBA’s board of governors also had not discussed removing him as an owner, he said. Silver could have suspended Sarver for longer than one year, but US$10 million was the most he could fine him.

The NBA announced its penalties on Sept 13 after releasing a 43-page public report by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which conducted a nearly year-long investigation into Sarver’s conduct in his 18 years with the basketball teams. The NBA began its investigation in response to a November 2021 article by ESPN about accusations of mistreatment against Sarver. The law firm said its investigators interviewed more than 100 individuals who witnessed behaviour that “violated applicable standards”.

Sarver, according to the report, made crude jokes, used “the N-word” on at least five occasions, shared inappropriate text messages and photos, and belittled employees. During the investigation, he sought to defend himself by citing his contributions to social and racial justice causes and his support of women’s basketball.

In a statement on Wednesday, Women’s NBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league was committed to diversity and inclusion and welcomed the news of Sarver’s decision to sell the Mercury. She had described his fine and suspension as “appropriate and necessary”.

Last week, Suns guard Chris Paul and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James quickly criticised the NBA’s punishment as insufficient. Paul said he was “horrified and disappointed” by what he had read in the report and described Sarver’s behaviour as “atrocious”. Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the NBA players’ union, said last week that Sarver should be barred from the league for life.

On Wednesday, New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, the president of the NBA players’ union, said in a statement that Sarver had made “a swift decision that was in the best interest of our sports community”. After Sarver announced his plans to sell the Phoenix teams, James said on Twitter that he was “proud to be a part of a league committed to progress,” striking a different note from a week ago when he said the NBA “definitely got this wrong” with its punishment.

“I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right,” James said in a tweet last week. “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.”

Last modified: September 22, 2022