Phoenix Suns team owner Robert Sarver suspended for 1 year, fined $10M after NBA investigation

Duane Rankin
Arizona Republic

Robert Sarver, majority owner of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, has been suspended for one year from any activities involving both teams and fined $10 million for ''workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies'' found during an NBA investigation.

The league on Tuesday announced the results of a 10-month investigation into allegations made against him by numerous people who had worked for the Suns organization. The league also will require Sarver to complete a workplace training program.

The NBA launched its investigation last November in reaction to an ESPN report of allegations of racism and misogyny against Sarver, claiming he created a "toxic" work environment within the organization during his run as owner, which began when he bought the franchise in 2004.

A total of 320 individuals, including current and former employees who worked for the teams during Sarver’s 18-year tenure, and "other relevant individuals" were interviewed as part of the investigation, the NBA announced.

In addition, more than 80,000 documents and other materials, including emails, text messages and videos were reviewed.

“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in an NBA statement. “We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces."

Sarver denied the allegations from the start of the investigation and said he welcomed the league looking into the matter. He issued as statement on Tuesday afternoon after the NBA announced its decision.

"Good leadership requires accountability," said Sarver in the statement, released by the Suns. "For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that begins with me.  While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees.  I take full responsibility for what I have done.  I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values."

Suns owner Robert Sarver applauds a play by the Suns against the Utah Jazz at the Footprint Center on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

MORE: Sarver punishment draws widespread criticism

Sarver, along with the Suns and Mercury "cooperated fully with the investigative process," the NBA announced. 

As for the fine, $10 million is the maximum "permitted" by the NBA Constitution & By-Laws. The league will donate these funds to organizations "committed to addressing race and gender-based issues in and outside the workplace."

The 60-year-old Sarver purchased the Suns in 2004 for a then-record $401 million. According to Forbes, the team was worth $1.8 billion as of October 2021. 

What the NBA investigation of Suns owner found

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm headed the Sarver investigation.

The NBA statement said the firm's investigation concluded that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and league rules and policies.  This conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver claps as Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi is introduced during the second quarter of the Western Conference first round playoff series between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers in Phoenix June 1, 2021.

Among the key findings in the independent investigation:

• Sarver, on at least five occasions during his tenure with the Suns/Mercury organization, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.

• Sarver engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many 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 physical conduct toward male employees.

• Sarver engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including by yelling and cursing at them.

"He recognizes that at times during his 18 years of ownership, his conduct did not reflect his, or the Suns’ values, and was inconsistent with the advancements the management team has taken with Robert’s full support," said Suns Legacy Partners, LLC, in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. The LLC is the ownership group led by majority owner Sarver that operates the Suns, Mercury and Footprint Center.

"We are proud of the progress we’ve already made, and moving forward, our organization will continue to build a best-in-class workplace."

Suns' owner Robert Sarver with his son Jack and wife Penny Sanders at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 12, 2016 in Phoenix.

Back in November, Sarver said he never used the N-word.

"Let me be perfectly clear: I have never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-word," said Sarver in an interview with The Republic.

"Any accusation that I have is 100 percent false. That word isn’t in my vocabulary, and my family and friends who have known me for decades will confirm that I don’t use that kind of language, or any kind of racist language. I am devastated that someone would make that up as a way to hurt me and the Suns. I am proud that the Suns have been at the forefront of many social justice and civil rights causes during my tenure, and I have tried do everything I can to fight against racism and advocate for this community." 

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz was joined by David Anders and Sarah Eddy, partners at the firm, in the investigation.

The law firm out of New York City also conducted the league's investigation on the Dallas Mavericks in 2018 and former Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling in 2014, which resulted in Sterling being banned from the NBA, fined and ultimately forced to sell the franchise.

The Sarver investigation "substantiated instances of workplace misconduct engaged in by Suns employees that were not directly related to Mr. Sarver and a lack of proper organizational policies and controls."

What the NBA decision means going forward

Sarver is not allowed to do the following during his one-year suspension:

  • Be present at any NBA or WNBA team 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 public or private capacity.
  • Have any involvement with the business or basketball operations of the Suns or
  • Mercury.
  • Have any involvement in the business, governance, or activities of either the NBA or
  • WNBA, including attending or participating in meetings of either league’s Board (and their associated Board committees).
Mar 27, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, United States;  Phoenix Suns minority owner Larry Fitzgerald talks with owner Robert Sarver during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Footprint Center.

Sarver must also complete a training program "focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace" during his suspension.

"I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision," Sarver continued in the statement. "This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued."

In addition, the Suns and Mercury organizations have a "series of requirements" they must complete to improve the workplace. 

  • Retaining an outside firm to evaluate and make recommendations with respect to workplace training programs, policies and procedures, and hiring and compensation
  • practices —with a focus on fostering a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace.
  • Conducting regular and anonymous workplace culture surveys and responding to survey results with specific action plans.
  • Immediately reporting to the league any instances or allegations of significant misconduct by any employee.
  • For a period of three years, providing the league with regular reports related to steps taken by the organization to address these requirements.
  • Following league direction for remediation/improvement of workplace issues if/as they arise.

The NBA will monitor these actions.

Feb 16, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.;  Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver tries his hand at photography during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets at Footprint Center.

“The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in the NBA statement. “We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces."

The Suns open the 2021-22 regular season Oct. 19 against Dallas Mavericks at Footprint Center. Training camp opens next week.

“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," Silver said in the statement. "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.”

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This is a developing story, check back for updates

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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