Robert Sarver to Sell Phoenix Suns and Mercury Teams Amid Scandal

Bowing to what he called an “unforgiving climate,” Robert Sarver said Wednesday that he planned to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury amid public pressure after an N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. last week fined him $10 million and suspended him from team operations for one year. According to the investigation’s report, Sarver 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 N.B.A. — faced mounting public pressure to levy a harsher punishment for behavior N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver had described as “beyond the pale.”

In a statement 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 separate statements, Silver and Suns Legacy Partners L.L.C., the ownership group of the Suns and Mercury, said Sarver’s decision was the best choice for the organization 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 apologize to those hurt.”

An N.B.A. spokesman declined to comment when asked whether Silver had pushed Sarver to sell the teams. Last week, Silver defended the fine and suspension issued to Sarver as fair punishment and said he had not asked him to voluntarily sell the teams. The N.B.A.’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 $10 million was the most he could fine him.

The N.B.A. announced its penalties Sept. 13 after releasing a 43-page public report by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which conducted a nearly yearlong investigation into Sarver’s conduct in his 18 years with the basketball teams. The N.B.A. 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 behavior 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, Sarver sought to defend himself by citing his contributions to social and racial justice causes and his support of women’s basketball.

In a statement Wednesday, W.N.B.A. 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 criticized the N.B.A.’s punishment as insufficient. Paul said he was “horrified and disappointed” by what he had read in the report and described Sarver’s behavior as “atrocious.” Tamika Tremaglio, the executive director of the N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. “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.”

The harshest penalty the league has ever levied on a team owner came in 2014 when Donald Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was barred for life after he made racist remarks about Black people in a private conversation and a recording of his comments was made public.

Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft, agreed to buy the Clippers for about $2 billion just one month later. The quick sale was facilitated when medical experts declared that Sterling was “mentally incapacitated,” which allowed his wife, Rochelle, to have sole trusteeship of the team and negotiate a deal.

Yet selling professional sports teams is often a drawn-out process that can take months or even years.

Owners typically hire one of a handful of bankers who specialize in such transactions. That banker solicits bids from billionaires, corporations or, increasingly, large coalitions of individuals. Sometimes there is a more traditional auction process. Once an agreement is reached, the potential new owner or owners have to be vetted and approved by a vote of the N.B.A.’s board of governors, which includes owners from all 30 teams.

There are a number of factors that can complicate a sale, some of which are present with the Phoenix Suns.

While Sarver controls the Suns and the Mercury, he owns just 35 percent of Suns Legacy Partners L.L.C., the legal entity that owns the teams. Potential buyers may want to purchase 100 percent of the teams, which would involve negotiating with other members of the ownership group — though some of them may want to buy the team and may have a leg up after already having been vetted and approved by the N.B.A.

Arenas and associated commercial development can also complicate sales. While the Suns ownership group manages the Footprint Center, where the Suns and the Mercury play their home games, the arena is owned by the City of Phoenix.

Teams usually sell to those willing to pay the most money, but not always. Sometimes owners value non-monetary terms, like an agreement to keep a team in a specific city, and the method and terms of payment for teams can also matter.

When team owners have been more or less forced to sell teams, the outcomes have varied widely.

In 2017, Jerry Richardson announced he would sell the Carolina Panthers shortly after Sports Illustrated reported allegations of workplace misconduct. Five months later, after a fairly typical sales process, David Tepper agreed to buy the Panthers for at least $2.2 billion, which was the highest price for an N.F.L. team at the time.

The sale of Real Salt Lake, an M.L.S. team, took much longer. In August 2020, M.L.S. announced that Dell Loy Hansen would sell the team, after Hansen was reported to have made racist comments. It took 17 months for Hansen and M.L.S. to find a buyer, and the league had to operate the team for a season.

The N.B.A. has also agreed to less severe punishments when inquiries have found workplace misconduct.

In 2018, Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, agreed to pay $10 million to women’s leadership and domestic-violence organizations after an N.B.A. investigation confirmed reports of sexual harassment and other improper conduct among employees in the team’s front office.

Cuban did not face accusations of misconduct, but the investigation found his supervision lacking. According to the report, Terdema Ussery, the former team president and chief executive, was one of several high-ranking team officials who had engaged in inappropriate conduct toward female employees.

After the report was released, Cuban apologized and said he had missed opportunities to correct the culture of his organization.

Sopan Deb contributed reporting.

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