Robert Sarver and Donald Sterling are both despicable people, each credibly accused of uniquely reprehensible actions that spanned years and sometimes decades. Only Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was truly reprimanded permanently. Sarver, the still-owner of the Phoenix Suns, got the equivalent of a parking ticket and a timeout. Both admit no wrongdoing, lost essentially no money, and the NBA seems just fine with that.
How the sports world handles workplace misconduct is broken. The abominable behavior of owners, coaches and players alike is not discouraged, but protected by systems designed to mitigate the adverse public relations impact of their actions coming to light, rather than proportionally address the human trauma they have already caused.
After the 2014 scandal involving Sterling, in which a video of him telling his then-girlfriend that it bothered him “that you’re associating with black people” came to public media attention, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life, fined $2.5 million and eventually forced to sell the Clippers for $2 billion. Sterling had a history of racist behavior, both with the Clippers and with his outside business. That the league had not addressed his behavior, which had been evident for years in a variety of discrimination lawsuits from both in and out of basketball, is emblematic of former and current commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver’s reactive approach to discipline, rather than proactively attacking the bastions of racism that thrive in an over 70% Black league.
For his part, Sarver was found to have repeatedly used the N-word around Black employees, colleagues and players, a history of racist, sexist, and toxic treatment of all those unlucky enough to work for him. Sterling’s punishment did not fix the decades of pain he caused, but it at the very least removed him from professional sports.
The NBA’s investigation finished this past week, and when Sarver was sanctioned $10 million (about 1.17% of his $850 million net worth), allowed to keep his team and suspended a mere one year, all with a claim that the league did not “have the right” to force a sale of the Suns, something they did eight years ago, it elicited not the feeling of painful relief when Sterling was finally removed from basketball, but rather one of genuine insult.
For one, the fine and suspension are laughable and equate to telling Sarver to take a long vacation and making him pay for the plane tickets to Bermuda. The NBA was clear that this was the maximum allowable dollar amount and length, which is less of an explanation than it is an underlining of the league’s own structural backwardness.
The league’s constitution, which sets the rules that allegedly prevent Silver from taking any real action to punish Sarver and discourage such behavior from others, is written and approved by the owners themselves, which is a bit like letting a kindergarten class decide what their rules are and what the punishments for breaking them should be.
Where is the oversight? Workplace discrimination and toxicity are far from the only issues that stem from the zero accountability model that American professional sports have gradually adopted. And as the popularity and value of the NBA balloons, someone has to watch out for the common sense in all of this. Otherwise, dregs like Sarver and Sterling will lurk in the upper echelon of the most valuable entertainment product in history.