Workplace Investigation News: Robert Sarver – Phoenix Suns

News

On November 4, 2021, ESPN posted an article concerning the inappropriate statements and conduct of Robert Sarver, the Managing Partner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.[1] The same day, the NBA launched an independent investigation into Mr. Sarver’s behavior, conducted by the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Two partners at the firm, David Anders and Sarah Eddy led the investigation, which involved gathering information from 320 witness interviews and analyzing more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages, and videos. The complaints involved allegations that Mr. Sarver created a toxic and hostile workplace, engaged in inappropriate and misogynistic behavior, and used the N-word.

Ten months later, on September 13, 2022, the firm released their investigation report – substantiating several key allegations of wrongdoing by Mr. Sarver, including:[2]

  • Sarver, on at least five occasions during his time with the Suns/Mercury organization, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.
  • Sarver engaged in inequitable conduct toward female employees, made 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 conduct towards male employees.
  • Sarver engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including yelling and cursing at them.

It is important to note that the investigation did not find that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus. However, the investigation uncovered instances of racial insensitivity, mistreatment of female employees, inappropriate commentary related to sex or sexual orientation, and disrespectful communications within the Suns organization.[3] Furthermore, the investigation concluded that the Sun’s Human Resources function was “historical[ly] ineffective[]” and was not a trusted place for employees to report instances of inappropriate conduct.[4]

Based on the investigation findings, the NBA has taken the following actions:

  • Sarver is suspended from the Suns/Mercury organization for a period of one year, during which time he will not:
    • Be present at any NBA or WNBA facility, including any office, arena, or practice facility.
    • Attend or participate in any NBA or WNBA event or activity, including games, practices, or business partner activity.
    • Represent the Suns or Mercury in any capacity.
    • Have any involvement with the business or basketball operations of the Suns or Mercury.
    • Have any involvement with the business or activities of either the NBA or WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of either league’s Board of Directors or associated Board committees.
  • Sarver is ordered to, during his suspension, complete a training program centered on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.
  • Sarver is fined $10 million, the maximum penalty permitted by the NBA Constitution and Bylaws.

The NBA has pledged to donate the $10 million fine to organizations that are committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace. Additionally, the Suns/Mercury organization is required to fulfill a series of requirements for workplace improvements set forth and monitored by the NBA. These requirements include, among other measures: retaining an outside firm to evaluate and make recommendations on the workplace training programs and policies, conducting regular and anonymous workplace culture surveys, responding to culture survey results with specific action plans, and immediate reporting to the league any instances of allegations of significant misconduct.[5]

Also, in July 2021, the Suns organization hired a new head of Human Resources who, along with other executives, has implemented a series of positive workplace changes. These changes include an update to the workplace respect policy, the creation of a confidential hotline for reporting misconduct, the creating of an investigation response team for internal investigations, and additional workplace training.[6]

“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He remarked:

“I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent.  Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior.  On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report.  We must do better.”[7]

[1] https://www.espn.com/espn/print?id=32440987

[2] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.wlrk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Phoenix-Suns-Report.pdf

[3] https://www.nba.com/news/nba-investigation-robert-sarver-suns-official-release?

[4] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.wlrk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Phoenix-Suns-Report.pdf

[5] https://www.nba.com/news/nba-investigation-robert-sarver-suns-official-release?

[6] Id.

[7] Id.