Of course the NBA is bad at policing billionaires
It has long been a playground for rich and powerful men
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Last week, in announcing what most took as a light punishment for Suns billionaire Robert Sarver, Adam Silver had the worst press conference of his life. Chris Paul, LeBron James, and union head Tamika Tremaglio all said the NBA’s decision to suspend Sarver for only a year was wrong. (Even the generally genial John Hollinger said Silver has a year to fix his mistake.) The problem is that Silver seemed mushy, lawyerly, and confused on the topic of whether powerful men get to behave like raving lunatics.
You know what can cause smart people like Adam Silver to be mushy, lawyerly, and confused about powerful men? Three decades in the NBA.
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For a long time the league has been a playground for men behaving badly, especially toward women.
In 2014, Blake Griffin wrote about his introduction to the NBA: a party at his boss’s house. A who’s who of the NBA—journalists, league personnel, coaches, sponsors, GMs, players—attended Donald Sterling’s parties, where some guests were handed women as party favors. Griffin writes:
Two blonde models showed up on either side of me. They had clearly been hired for the event. I knew this because they were wearing size XXXX-L Clippers T-shirts tied at the stomach. I looked at Sterling. He had a big dumb grin on his face. I looked at one of the girls, as if to say, “Uhhh, you don’t have to do this.” She looked back: “Uhhh, yes I do.”
Griffin also writes about Sterling’s racism, evident from a simple Google search that turned up articles about discrimination in Sterling’s real estate empire:
My first thought was, Wow this guy is really, really a racist … how is he an owner of an NBA team?
My second thought was, Wow, these articles are from 2003 and 2008. I guess everybody already knows about this stuff and just doesn’t care.
Have you seen “Winning Time?” It’s the show where Lakers honcho Jerry Buss lives the life of Hugh Hefner. At one point, Buss seeks Red Auerbach’s help building a dynasty. In the show, Auerbach laughs Buss off, telling him instead to enjoy his time running the team—and to “milk it for the nookie.”
Magic Johnson’s book “My Life,” published in 1992, includes a passage from his wife, Cookie. She moved to Los Angeles from Michigan around the time of their wedding, and, from the first time she visited The Forum, she found the NBA lifestyle to be eye-opening:
The first time I went, I watched as a girl in a bright orange dress, tight and low cut with her boobs hanging out, strolled and strutted all the way around the court. It was incredible. Men actually wrote numbers on pieces of paper and held them up, like judges in the Olympics. She walked all the way over to where Jack Nicholson was sitting. She bent over and said something to him, and then walked back to the guy who brought her and gave him a hug.
Have you read how many women Wilt Chamberlain (20,000), Magic Johnson (six at once, hundreds a year), and Lamar Odom (2,000) say they slept with? Do you remember the plane-load of young women that made Mikhail Prokhorov famous?
Of course the NBA has long been a safe place for power imbalances, for rich men to view women primarily as sexual items. Just this week, on a work call, someone told me about a famous current NBA head coach “enjoying the NBA lifestyle.” He clarified—he meant the coach was dating a woman less than half his age. Such things never raise a stir unless they hit the media, and sometimes not even then.
Enter crazy-ass Robert Sarver. When Baxter Holmes’ incredible Sarver story came out in November 2021, Adam Silver’s league took the position that they were surprised:
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the league has not “received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”
It’s a legalistic point that Silver reiterated in his press conference. They hadn’t received a complaint of misconduct. But I would be amazed if the league actually had no idea Sarver was an issue; they know Sarver! They did a background check! They saw him courtside, at All-Star Games, in luxury boxes, at sponsor events, and at board of governors’ meetings for almost two decades.
There were signs of Sarver’s wild manner, even in the media, going back to Jack McCallum’s “Seven Seconds or Less.” Sarver was reportedly the hardest hardliner in the contentious 2011 CBA talks. He was voted the NBA’s worst owner in 2016. Did anyone from the NBA notice the public comments of former Suns front-office employee Amin Elhassan on TrueHoop TV and at least a dozen podcast and TV episodes? (“Everywhere I go,” the Phoenix resident said on ESPN in 2018, “people say the same thing to me: when are the Phoenix Suns going to be sold?”)
In March 2019, Kevin Arnovitz published a story on ESPN.com about Sarver and the Suns’ “messy and dysfunctional front office.” There was one anecdote about Sarver berating Grant Hill in a way his teammates found repugnant, and another about Sarver filling general manager Ryan McDonough’s office with live goats that crapped everywhere.
In 2021, months before Holmes’ report, on TrueHoop we published video of Sarver at a memorial roast, talking very much the way the Wachtell report describes Sarver talking at work. Sarver says the sons of one of his co-investors were “fucking their way through the cheerleading team.” Sarver even shares an anecdote about bringing his own children to visit that same investor’s boat, where they stumbled across a threesome.
Near the end of his lectern remarks, Sarver looks down at the people in the front row—the sons who did or didn’t sleep with the dance team—and says “we’re lucky we still own the franchise. In today’s environment, we’d have lost it a long time ago.” I wonder what he had in mind when he said that. I wonder if the Wachtell lawyers interviewed the dance team.
Sarver will say it was a joke, but it’s undeniable that the bigger point is true. The league has been home to a lot of wildly entitled behavior. That’s changing, slowly. Maybe Silver is the new sheriff in town. Maybe not.
Of course the NBA and its teams have long been a frightening and belittling workplace for many people of color and women.
Baxter Holmes’ feature is a detailed and well-sourced story about Sarver’s outrageous and childish leadership. In an NBA rarity, the story included an insider courageous enough to put their name on criticism of an NBA billionaire—former Suns coach Earl Watson’s name is prominent in the opening, which also includes multiple instances of Sarver using the N-word:
Sarver once used the N-word when trying to explain to a staffer why he preferred hiring Lindsey Hunter over Dan Majerle as head coach in 2013, according to a high-level executive who heard the remark. Hunter was a first-year Suns player development coordinator while Majerle was in his fifth year as a Suns associate head coach.
“These [N-words] need a [N-word],” Sarver told the staffer of his largely Black team, according to the executive.
A female former marketing employee said Sarver would frequently use language such as, “Do I own you? Are you one of mine?”
“He makes you feel like you belong to him,” the employee said.
Several employees recalled separate instances in which Sarver referred to staffers and players as “inventory.”
“It wrecked my life,” said a third female former employee. “I was contemplating suicide.”
The most thoughtful voice I have heard on the topic of Sarver is the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas on BRING IT IN. Thomas said she found the NBA’s response depressing and triggering. She wondered what life is like for NBA team employees, what the WNBA will do about Sarver, and lamented we’ll have another story like this in two years.
Then she said the words that we all know are true: “We have to stand up and say that this is not just Robert Sarver.” She thought it would be amazing if, instead of the Suns going through some training to improve the workplace, every team did.
If it’s terrible to work for Sarver, how is it to work for the NBA’s 29 other teams? There have been very few deep-dive examinations of the NBA’s 30 workplace cultures. What few exist have tended to turn up the word “toxic.”
Interviews with more than a dozen former and current Mavericks employees in different departments, conducted during a months-long SPORTS ILLUSTRATED investigation, paint a picture of a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior: alleged public fondling by the team president; outright domestic assault by a high-profile member of the Mavs.com staff; unsupportive or even intimidating responses from superiors who heard complaints of inappropriate behavior from their employees; even an employee who openly watched pornography at his desk.
According to nearly two dozen current and former team staffers, ranging from occupants of executive suites to office cubicles, in addition to league sources and others close to the team, the Lakers under Johnson and Pelinka were fraught with dysfunction, on and off the court. These sources, who feared reprisal and weren’t authorized to speak publicly, describe Pelinka and Johnson as managers who made unilateral free-agent acquisitions; triggered a spate of tampering investigations and fines; berated staffers, including Walton; and created an in-house culture that many current and former longtime staffers said marginalized their colleagues, inspired fear and led to feelings of anxiety severe enough that at least two staffers suffered panic attacks.
Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports in 2021:
The Portland Trail Blazers opened an investigation into Neil Olshey — the president of basketball operations — with employees alleging a toxic, hostile work environment where staff members have been subjected to intimidation and profanity-laced tirades, among other bullying tactics, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
The Blazers’ Jody Allen has also been accused of exploiting workers.
Silver needed 23 members of the Board of Governors on board to kick Sarver out—it’s the billionaires who run those other teams who let Sarver off the hook. Silver has the authority to drag Sarver’s name through the mud publicly, to lavish millions on the investigating law firms, and to pressure Sarver behind the scenes to sell (which many expect to happen).
“I don’t have the right,” Silver clarified in his press conference last week, “to take away his team.” He can only excommunicate him like Sterling, however, if three-quarters of the league’s billionaires support the move.
Evidently, they do not. Why hasn’t Sarver been banned? Ask James Dolan, Tilman Fertitta, Josh Harris, and the boys.
Lee Jenkins wrote the definitive profile of Silver. It came out in 2014, just as Silver had kicked Donald Sterling out of the league. The story opens with Masawani Jere, the son of Malawi’s UN ambassador, who became one of Silver’s best friends beginning in 1977. The undeniable suggestion is that, despite Silver’s wealthy and connected Westchester County upbringing, he is many decades into caring deeply about people who don’t look like him. There’s a story about a racially motivated fistfight outside a bar that ended in tragedy. There’s a story about Silver shipping a Volkswagen to Africa.
Of course Silver’s the kind of guy who would be outraged by Sterling. His private speech to the board of governors, upon being named commissioner, was reportedly about respect and transparency. Silver had the look of a guy who might speak truth to power, and who might stand up for the maligned or threatened, even if they were threatened by NBA billionaires.
After Sterling’s racist comments, Silver apologized to the “pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell and particularly Magic Johnson.” Silver became famous for being woke.
There’s another part of Jenkins’ story: in his youth, Silver spent a lot of time hanging around at his dad’s offices. His dad was a super-powered lawyer, working at Proskauer Rose with the richest and most powerful clients in the world. His colleagues were Lloyd Blankfein, David Stern, and Gary Bettman. After Adam’s parents died, the young NBA executive heard from a woman named Emily Geier, who, it turns out, is his father’s secret daughter. They are close now, he says.
Adam might have the urge to be an agent of change, but he is also from the world of powerful men.
Looking back, one insider sees the Sterling saga through a new lens. In 2014, the league appeared to boot Sterling to do the right thing. But it could be some of those board of governors votes were for other reasons. In retrospect, it was a chance to install Steve Ballmer, with his deep pockets, in the NBA’s best market, where he sets records for luxury tax and revenue sharing. It was a chance to solidify relations with the new commissioner.
In other words, you could help your own bottom line, and political standing, by booting Sterling, whose offending behavior was outlandish and caught on tape.
The Sarver case suggests that Sterling’s expulsion did not prove the board is generally against men behaving badly.
When it was time to kick out Sterling, came from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who voiced concerns about a “slippery slope.”
“How many people are bigoted in one way or the other in this league?” Cuban asked. “I don’t know. But you find one, all of a sudden you say well, you can’t play favorites being racist against African-Americans. Where do you draw the line?”
I am not sure I understand his argument, other than to say that while in the end he supported Silver’s ban of Sterling, Cuban sounds worried about what might happen if the league were to sniff around other teams.
The same year Cuban said that, we learned from later reporting that a Mavericks employee came to work with a swollen face: the result of a blow from the fellow employee she was dating. After that and other stories appeared in Sports Illustrated, the league conducted a massive investigation of the Mavericks’ workplace and found rampant misogyny and sexual predation. Cuban was not implicated, but it stands to reason that many teams would prefer that the league lay off.
The league isn’t wired to boss around billionaires anyway. NBA commissioners don’t come from the world of sports; they come from high-powered law firms where keeping the very wealthy out of trouble is an everyday habit. Much of the job of running the league is essentially client services for billionaires. How often can the most exclusive club in the world embarrass its members?
When the NFL was roiled by the Ray Rice scandal, Cuban was on ESPN radio pointing out that everyone was making fun of Roger Goodell for how he handled everything. In Cuban’s view, people didn’t understand Goodell’s job. No one was blaming the Ravens’ billionaire who employed Rice, which meant Goodell was succeeding. In Cuban’s view, a commissioner’s obligation is to protect billionaires, and Cuban is the closest thing Adam Silver has to a boss.
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