September 13, 2022 

What does the Robert Sarver suspension mean for the Phoenix Mercury?

Critical offseason looms, with Sarver's shadow remaining

Phoenix Mercury (and Suns) owner Robert Sarver was suspended for one year and fined $10 million for comments of racism and misogyny during his 18 years within the organization, the NBA announced on Tuesday.

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Phoenix issued a statement regarding the investigation of Sarver.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert issued a statement of her own, saying: “The actions taken on behalf of the NBA and WNBA in response to the findings of the independent investigation are appropriate and necessary.  We take great pride in being one of the most diverse and inclusive leagues in sports, and hope that these actions will not only be used to establish a stronger workplace culture for the Suns/Mercury organization but also shine a light on the impact that offensive language and inappropriate behavior can have on employees more broadly.”

The WNBPA did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

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The news came following an ESPN article in November 2021 regarding the allegations. A month before those allegations came to light, the organization put forth these statements:

First of four tweets of the statements the Phoenix Mercury sent out on Oct. 22, 2021.

As a result, the NBA hired the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to conduct a thorough investigation of these claims. They came back with a 43-page document highlighting the scenarios of Sarver’s behaviors, including these below.

Sarver said the N-word at least five times in repeating or purporting to repeat what a Black person said—four of those after being told by both Black and white subordinates that he should not use the word, even in repetition of another.

Sarver used language and engaged in conduct demeaning of female employees. Among other examples, he told a pregnant employee that she would be unable to do her job upon becoming a mother; berated a female employee in front of others and then commented that women cry too much; and arranged an all-female lunch so that female employees at Western Alliance Bank, where at the time he was CEO, could explain to female Suns employees how to handle his demands.

Sarver commented and made jokes frequently to employees in large and small settings about sex and sex-related anatomy, including by making crude or otherwise inappropriate comments about the physical appearance and bodies of female employees and other women. On four occasions, Sarver engaged in workplace-inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.

Over 50 current and former employees reported that Sarver frequently engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees—including by yelling and cursing at them—that on occasion constituted bullying under workplace standards.”

The report stated that many Suns employees left the organization due to multiple instances of workplace misconduct. Much of this has a history dating back to when Sarver started with the organization in 2004. Early in the investigation, the investigators learned that the Suns’ HR department had historically maintained poor records. Accordingly, the HR files received by the investigators were limited in number, incomplete, and disorganized.

Sarver’s documented treatment of women in the report goes back to 2008, where he told a pregnant employee that she could not continue her role because “a baby needs her mom, not her father,” along with her breastfeeding. He also made jokes regarding his genitalia on numerous occasions from anonymous within the organization. One source stated that Sarver said to her and a male employee. “You gotta get out of here . . . you’ve never seen anything this big.”

Sarver issued a statement regarding his suspension and the investigation.

Phoenix Mercury majority owner Robert Sarver’s statement regarding investigation: Photo Credit: Twitter @JShawNBA

How does this affect the Mercury?

While Sarver is suspended, he still has ownership of the team. When the free agency period opens for the WNBA, it remains to be seen how players will weigh Sarver’s racist, sexist remarks. The league is made up of nearly 75% Black women.

This is happening amid a critical offseason for the Mercury. Diana Taurasi is a free agent, Skylar Diggins-Smith left the Mercury late in the 2022 season after Phoenix actively shopped her, and Brittney Griner remains illegally detained in Russia. The current general manager, Jim Pitman, said this of Sarver in the ESPN article detailing these allegations: “[Sarver] has been consistently on the side of women and the WNBA.”

As for the Mercury players under contract, they have a potential precursor to follow. Back in July 2020, Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler made remarks critical of the Black Lives Matter movement as she pursued an elected term as U.S. Senator from Georgia. Players on her team banded together to oppose her publicly, ultimately choosing to work for her opponent, now-Senator Raphael Warnock, and helping to bring about her defeat. Shortly thereafter, Loeffler sold the Dream to a group led by Larry Gottesdiener and including former Dream player Renee Montgomery.

The WNBA, too, distanced itself from Loeffler and issued a statement saying Loeffler was no longer involved in day-to-day operations. And the WNBPA joined the Dream players in denouncing Loeffler and aiding the campaign of Warnock.

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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