Here's why Robert Sarver got to keep the Suns while Donald Sterling lost the Clippers

·Writer
·8-min read

Nearly a year after his misconduct allegations were made public, the bill came due for Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver.

The NBA announced Tuesday that Sarver received a one-year suspension, barring him from all NBA and WNBA facilities, and a $10 million fine after a lengthy investigation found he had repeatedly used demeaning language toward female employees, made inappropriate jokes and contact with employees, and used the N-word at least five times while relaying statements a Black person had made.

The punishment would be the largest ever levied against an NBA owner ... had it not been for one Donald Sterling, whose own scandal rocked the NBA less than a decade ago and led to the former Los Angeles Clippers owner's ouster from the league.

Sarver might be out $10 million and not even allowed to watch the Suns from the nosebleeds, but he managed to hold onto the team he purchased in 2004 for $401 million. Sterling wasn't so fortunate, as he was banned from the NBA for life, fined $2.5 million and eventually forced to sell the team.

Here's why the Sarver and Sterling cases ended so differently, starting with the medium of the scandal.

Donald Sterling's scandal started with a recording

In case you need a refresher, the Sterling scandal began with an unhappy girlfriend and a phone recording app.

It's important to note that Sterling was far from a good citizen in the NBA before April 25, 2014. His notorious frugality saw the Clippers become a laughingstock for most of his tenure, he often butted heads with the commissioner's officer and he was sued multiple times for racial discrimination and sexual harassment. His players also weren't exactly big fans of him, as exemplified by Blake Griffin's essay about his White Party.

None of that was enough to get the NBA to take action against Sterling. That moment finally came when TMZ published recordings of phone calls between Sterling and his girlfriend V. Stiviano.

In the calls, Sterling complained about Stiviano, who is of Black and Mexican descent, associating herself with Black people, including an Instagram photo with Magic Johnson. The conversations showed naked racism in a league of majority Black players. It wasn't long before those players started taking action against Sterling.

Four days after the recordings were published, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Sterling's lifetime ban.

The key component in all that was the hard, public evidence of Stiviano's recordings that necessitated a quick response. Sarver's scandal began very differently, with an ESPN exposé featuring allegations from more than 70 current and former Suns employees.

More than 70 people accusing Sarver is an enormous amount of people, but a lack of public video or audio evidence also allowed for a slower response and made it riskier to take action against the billionaire. The first story presented in the ESPN article was a confrontation between Sarver and then-Suns head coach Earl Watson over the owner's use of the N-word. Sarver disputed Watson's account of the incident.

FILE - Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver applauds the teams 107-99 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Phoenix. The NBA has suspended Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury owner Robert Sarver for one year, plus fined him $10 million, after an investigation found that he had engaged in what the league called “workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies.
Robert Sarver is still owner of the Phoenix Suns. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

The closest thing we got to confirming video on Sarver was a recording of his "roast" of deceased Suns minority owner Dick Heckmann, in which Sarver, while among friends, cracked many jokes along the lines of what his employees claimed.

The whole scandal would have very likely played out differently had there been an actual recording, which we may as well call the Ray Rice Principle, in which the NFL suspended the Baltimore Ravens running back two games for allegedly striking his then-fiancee, then indefinitely once the infamous video leaked out.

The NBA didn't have firm proof for some Robert Sarver allegations

That lack of video evidence with Sarver made things particularly difficult for NBA investigators, as fully assessing one man's decade-plus of behavior in the workplace is no easy task when relying on memory and hearsay.

While the NBA was comfortable enough with its findings to conclude "Sarver has engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies," with conduct including "the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying," it also ceded that its investigation wasn't perfect.

For starters, the league said 124 people contacted by investigators either ignored their request for an interview or outright declined. There was also this interesting section about the difficulties of looking into events decades in the past when nearly everyone involved read the original ESPN article:

Many of the events alleged in the ESPN article, and others learned about during the investigation, occurred long ago — in many cases, well over a decade ago. The passage of time posed a significant challenge for the investigation. Most of what was alleged in the ESPN article and reported in interviews comprised oral statements and undocumented interactions. The investigators tried to corroborate witnesses’ recollections with contemporaneous records such as emails and videos, but such corroborative material was generally not available — either because it never existed or because materials were not kept or were discarded as part of routine record-retention practices.

The investigation was therefore heavily reliant on witnesses’ memories, which often fade over time and can be affected by external forces — including, most notably here, the ESPN article itself. Nearly every interviewee had read the article, and some said that their recollections were refreshed by it. To try to minimize the effects of suggestion, the investigators asked open-ended questions and avoided leading questions as much as possible. In making factual findings, the investigators assessed witness credibility in all the customary ways — by evaluating, among other things, demeanor, potential bias, personal motivations, and consistency with other evidence.

It's telling the NBA still took severe action against Sarver despite those complicating factors. They also might explain why the league stopped short of casting him out.

Robert Sarver and Donald Sterling's scandals were fundamentally different

Perhaps the biggest functional difference between Sarver and Sterling, beyond the ways each reached the public, was the different ways they showed racial insensitivity.

Sarver was found to have used the language of racism, but only when recounting what other Black people had said (which is still not acceptable). Sterling might not have been caught on tape saying the N-word, but his comments were more illustrative of the worldview that made the N-word what it is, showing a clear issue with Black people.

The relaying of racial slurs was only one aspect of the allegations against Sarver. Just as serious were the allegations of his mistreatment of Suns employees in the office, including multiple incidents in which he exposed himself to male employees and made sexual comments about female employees.

Sterling was not a well-liked figure around the Clippers' offices either. His ban originated from the Stiviano recordings, but his decades of unpopularity also made it easy for the NBA to show him the door.

Players revolted against Donald Sterling and said next to nothing about Robert Sarver

The term "player empowerment" is now an NBA cliche, but the reaction to Sterling showed how much the players could do if they banded together.

Within 72 hours of the Sterling recordings being published, Clippers players had publicly demonstrated against the team owner during a playoff game by turning their shooting shirts inside out and wearing black armbands. Several sponsors announced they were cutting ties with the Clippers. President Barack Obama weighed in.

And, of course, several of the biggest names in basketball called the Sterling comments for what they were. Here's a sampling:

LeBron James: "There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There's just no room for him."

Kobe Bryant: "I couldn't play for him."

Magic Johnson: "I feel sorry for my friends Coach Doc Rivers and Chris Paul that they have to work for a man that feels that way about African Americans."

Gregg Popovich: "Obviously, it's disgusting."

Michael Jordan: "I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level."

The same energy was not there when Sarver was accused of using the N-word multiple times. No players called for Sarver's ouster, and there were hardly any questions about it from the media outside Phoenix.

That's not an entirely fair comparison to make, as the circumstances of each owner's allegedly racist speech were very different, but it goes to show there are a handful of people that can push Silver into taking quick, severe action, and that didn't happen in Sarver's case.