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The Misconduct of Powerful Men in Sports Is a Tired Replay

I don’t want to write this column, and you don’t want to read it.

Sports fans are tired of the whole subject matter: the people in sports who give the games we love a terrible name.

I’m talking about the entitled bullies. The misogynists and miscreants. The racists and those who walk the line between being utterly ignorant and outright hate.

I’m talking about the players and team owners who wield their power like a cudgel and act as though they can do anything they want to anyone they want.

But here I am again, this time addressing Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns of the N.B.A. and the Phoenix Mercury of the W.N.B.A., whom the N.B.A. suspended for a year and fined $10 million after it found that he mistreated employees over his 18-year tenure. According to the N.B.A., that abuse of staff included Sarver’s repeated use of a racist slur for Black people, making sex-related comments in the workplace and inequitable treatment of women.

The league’s report did not conclude “that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”

In a statement Tuesday, Sarver said that while he disagreed “with some of the particulars” of the N.B.A.’s report, he apologized for his words and actions.

It feels like a constant drumbeat. This week, I’m writing about a guy — and yes, it’s almost always a guy — whose actions are just the latest blight on sports, one of the essential parts of our cultural life.

Sarver is not well known to the run-of-the-mill fan, but the teams he owns and oversees are. The Suns and Mercury are longtime pillars in their leagues. The Suns nearly won the N.B.A. championship in the 2020-21 season and were among the league’s best last season. The Mercury have won three W.N.B.A. titles — and have drawn the world’s attention because Brittney Griner, their star center, is imprisoned in Russia and at the center of a geopolitical storm.

Over the last year, Sarver and his teams have been under a microscope. While the Suns and Mercury were trying to win championships, lawyers hired by the N.B.A. began peering into the behavior of the 60-year-old owner after ESPN reported his misdeeds and the toxic work environment he spawned.

The type of behavior investigators reported is so familiar, having happened in so many other instances, that it won’t take long to guess what they entailed. Misogyny? Check. Bullying and browbeating employees? Check.

What to Know:Robert Sarver Misconduct Case

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A suspension and a fine. The N.B.A. suspended Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, for one year and fined him $10 million after an investigation determined that he had engaged in misconduct towards his employees. Here is what to know:

How it began. Sarver, 60, led the ownership group that purchased the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in 2004 for $401 million. He has developed a reputation as an involved owner unafraid to draw attention to himself with showy stunts, such as dunking off a trampoline during halftime.

A troubling report. In November 2021, an ESPN report documented accusations that Sarver, who is white, frequently used an anti-Black racial slur in the presence of and in reference to employees and players and made misogynistic and sexual comments about women in the workplace.

Sarver’s response. After word of ESPN’s investigation into Sarver went public, the Suns pre-emptively released statements denying that Sarver had a history of racism or sexism. Sarver, in statements to ESPN, denied most of the accusations in the article.

N.B.A. investigation. Following the publication of the article, the league began looking into the accusations of mistreatment against Sarver, retaining the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to conduct an independent investigation.

A damning report. In September 2022, the firm and the N.B.A. released a 43-page report documenting the findings of the investigation. The report stated that Sarver “had engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards,” which included use of racial slurs as well as inappropriate comments and conduct toward employees.

After speaking with more than 300 current and former employees and looking at over 80,000 documents, emails, text messages and videos, the investigators found that Sarver repeatedly used a particularly repulsive, racist term that starts with an “N.” Poor guy, he just couldn’t help himself, even when subordinates warned him not to.

The league also reported that Sarver ran his team like he was the sophomoric president of the rowdiest frat house on campus.

Sounds an awful lot like Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Commanders, currently being investigated by Congress and the N.F.L. for sexual harassment.

Sounds an awful lot like Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Clippers, whose racism got him bounced from the N.B.A. in 2014.

Sounds an awful lot like Jon Gruden, the former broadcaster and N.F.L. coach who led the Las Vegas Raiders until my colleagues Ken Belson and Katherine Rosman exposed emails in which he spread his misogyny and racism.

Sounds a lot like Richie Burke, the former manager of the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, who was ousted after players accused him of unleashing a torrent of threats on them.

There’s a running similarity: power lorded over vulnerable people with the expectation that there will be no repercussions.

I can’t shy away from the way our society deifies the rich, powerful and venerated — and how so many figures in sports exploit that standing at the expense of others.

Enough of abusive behavior in sports. And enough of the sports leagues’ waffling and wavering and finding loopholes and excuses for not coming down with full force on those whose actions harm others.

This week, it’s the same old story: a river of commentary gnashing teeth over whether Sarver’s punishment from the N.B.A.’s league office is sufficiently strong.

In a news conference Wednesday, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said that Sarver’s behavior over the past 18 years had been “indefensible,” but that there was no conversation about removing him as team owner.

When asked where he draws the line with regard to owners’ behavior, Silver said, “There is not a bright line, in terms of ownership, and I wouldn’t want to create one to suggest people could go right up to it.” Silver added that he believed Sarver “clearly has evolved as a person over that 18-year period” and that the owner is “on notice.”

We all deserve better. Time to slough off the old boy’s network that protects those who too often receive light consequences that fail to signal real change.

Stop letting the rich and entitled dirty sports more than they have already been dirtied.

Sarver is in the news now. Next week or next month, or next year, it will be someone else. We’d all like to be able to focus on the beauty of competition and the wonder of memorable performance. Can we look forward to that day soon?

I won’t hold my breath. Don’t hold yours.

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