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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The nuance of Sarver’s case

by Philip Martin | September 20, 2022 at 5:02 a.m.

In 2014, the National Basketball League forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers on account of his peevish mistress catching him on tape making racist remarks about Magic Johnson and warning her not to be hanging out with or promoting Black dudes on her Instagram.

Now some of y'all don't think it was right for the NBA to make Sterling divest himself of his property just because he said some words and thought some thoughts. But the real point is that none of his partners wanted to do business with him any longer. (They had to buy him out to get rid of him, and he did all right--Sterling got the Clippers for $12 million in 1981, then Steve Balmer paid $2 billion for them in 2014.)

Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns, explained he "would rather not be partners with somebody who has the views that were expressed on those tapes."

"This viewpoint should be one that is shared by both players and owners in our league," Sarver told the Arizona Republic. "At the end of the day, we're in this business together."

That sounds reasonable. Then Sarver held a teleconference with the Suns players.

"You know my track record on these issues," he told them. "A big part of what the NBA is about is promoting diversity, tolerance and respect for all people."

In the wake of the Sterling fiasco, Sarver seemed like a stand-up guy, or at least a rich white man who actually got it. One thing the cos-playing alt right has correct is that the world is becoming more and more mongrel as people mix and marry and "interbreed." Racial purity has always been a myth; every Nazi has Jewish ancestors, every Klansman has a great-great-grandpa who wandered--or was hauled--out of Africa.

Some of us believe miscegenation--which doesn't exist either--is the great hope of the world going forward. Maybe Sarver didn't think of it this way, but he knew what was good for business, and it wasn't Donald Sterling-style N-wording and throwing shade at useful mythic hero and icon Magic Johnson.

Now Sarver finds himself in trouble for behaving like an entitled jerk. While it's arguable--or at least the NBA is arguing--that his misconduct didn't rise (or sink) to Sterling's level, he stands accused of saying the N-word at least five times after being told not to say it, even if he was quoting someone else.

He also allegedly made juvenile remarks about condoms, pantsed an employee while filming a video for the ice-bucket challenge, habitually made lewd and offensive remarks to employees, and liked to show off photos of his wife in a bikini.

An NBA investigation--spurred by an excellent ESPN report by Baxter Knowles published in November 2021--concluded Sarver was a bad boss, and that he was, as a lot of people who consider themselves "edgy" like to say, "an equal opportunity offender."

Sarver wasn't really racist (or sexist or misogynistic or homophobic), he just liked to press people's buttons and make them uncomfortable. He knew that as the billionaire majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, he was pretty much insulated from having to face any consequences for his actions.

Because he was an entitled jerk.

But last week the NBA suspended Sarver for a year, forbidding him from having anything to do with the Phoenix Suns (or the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, of which he is also majority owner), fine him $10 million, and require him to undergo sensitivity training.

Some of you are outraged the NBA didn't take Sarver's team from him the way they took Sterling's team from him. I can understand that, because I'm a fan of nuance and think there is a real difference in Sterling's unreconstructed mutterings and Sarver's performative jerkiness.

It's interesting to note that while Sarver didn't dispute the finding of the investigation, he has bristled at the punishment. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Knowles, Sarver thinks the fine is too high and the suspension too long. Which is exactly what you'd expect him to think.

A lot of high achievers are bullies. A lot of high achievers believe themselves entitled to whatever they can take and push the limits of social decorum. And we often valorize this behavior.

People in my business are often nostalgic for the bullies they worked under in earlier decades; they tell war stories about the toxic workplaces they endured and how they trembled when the big boss beckoned them into his office. They can smile about it now because they survived the hazing. Others didn't.

These days "bully" is about as vile an epithet as you can hurl at someone, but that doesn't mean bullying is not an effective technique. It's wishful to say bullies are unhappy and damaged creatures who are often hurting as badly as their victims; the evidence is kids who bully other children enjoy relatively high levels of social standing and self-esteem. Bullying is a path to popularity for some.

In the adult world, bullies often succeed because, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated with his shock experiments where people were willing to administer painful electric shocks to others simply because a pretend scientist in a lab coat told them to, most of us are reluctant to question authority. We accept what we're told, even when we might suspect that power is being abused. We lionize bullies. Patton would have been as fine a general had he never slapped a soldier, Bobby Knight would have been as good a coach had he never thrown a chair.

Sarver seems to have been a pretty good owner. Both the Suns and the Mercury have a chance at a title next season. It might be poetic if they win it with their owner in exile, watching on TV.

But he will be back, and that's all right because I don't think we should withhold forgiveness from people who behave badly. Sarver's sins were of a different nature than Sterling's and I think that NBA commissioner Adam Silver was right when he suggested it was more about arrogance than bigotry with Sarver.

Sarver was behaving in racist and misogynistic ways to exert power over people, to intimidate and humiliate them, not out of some genuine delusion of superiority. (He might have thought himself superior, but not because of the color of their skin or their sex.)

Sterling is just a sad old man eaten up with fear and ignorance. He couldn't help it. He's 88, allegedly still active in the Los Angeles real estate scene, and I bet his mind is still a dark and narrow hall haunted by intimations of his own inadequacy.

Sterling was being his authentic self. Sarver knows better.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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