Player empowerment has come to define the modern NBA.
It’s a catch-all phrase that can mean a lot of things -- everything from super-team building, to load management -- but boils down to a simple concept: the increasing awareness among the very best players that the league, the teams and the entire multi-billion-dollar industry relies on superstars to reach full value.
But star power has its limits, which is always important to remember. We see this when, say, an owner is credibly accused of being sexist, misogynist, abusive and -- at the very least -- a racially insensitive oaf, and largely gets away with it.
There’s a difference between player empowerment, and players in power.
Because if the players were in power, perhaps Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury majority owner Robert Sarver would be in the process of being forced to sell his NBA and WNBA franchises and having his relationship with the leagues severed forever.
Instead, after a league-mandated investigation that validated and expanded upon a highly detailed ESPN story by Baxter Holmes about inappropriate behaviour dating back decades, Sarver will only have to pay a fine, serve a year’s suspension and take some sensitivity training.
As the details have sunk in and after a rather clumsy defence of the report and subsequent punishment by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, what’s emerged is a reminder of where the power really lies in a league that has always prided itself on being seen to do the right thing.
And guess what?
It lies with the largely anonymous billionaires who own the teams and can largely operate without significant scrutiny or severe consequences, even after being cruel to pregnant employees or firing a Black head coach -- current Toronto Raptors assistant Earl Watson -- for refusing to cut ties with his Black agent or using the N-word on multiple occasions.
Silver – who, after all, works on behalf of the 30 franchise owners – laid the league’s true power dynamics out plainly after being asked if there was a double-standard in the NBA when it comes to how owners can conduct themselves.
"There are particular rights here to someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to someone who is an employee,” Silver said.
More proof that behaving as a bullying, sexist racially insensitive goof -- someone comfortable with making jokes about players’ sex habits or asking them if they shaved their genitals, as examples -- carries with it a fairly nominal penalty came on Thursday when it was reported that the NBA had approved Sarver’s choice of minority shareholder Sam Garvin to serve as interim governor in his absence.
Garvin, it’s worth pointing out, was one of the signatories to a statement of support for Sarver after the ESPN article was published in November 2021.
So, the message would seem to be, if you’re one of the Suns employees who risked their career by speaking out against their billionaire boss and did finally see your concerns validated, don’t celebrate too hard, someone is likely watching.
Watching all this too are some of the league’s most prominent players -- Suns star guard Chris Paul, formerly the president of the NBA players union, and LeBron James, the living Lakers legend whose word carries weight, whether he’s using the massive social media following to be heard or speaking to the press.
Both James and Paul said what so many others have: that the sanctions against Sarver fell short.
The question is why didn’t Silver come down heavier with Sarver -- a five-year ban, or even lifetime ban, let’s say -- or indicate the league might consider having him removed?
There is precedent.
In 2014, barely months into his job as commissioner, TMZ unearthed a recording of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling arguing with his then-girlfriend about her being seen with Black men at Clippers games, among other odious details.
Sterling at that point had twice settled lawsuits for discriminatory rental policies as a landlord and was described as having a ‘plantation mentality’ by Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor in another lawsuit. The NBA stood idle on those occasions, but three days after the recordings surfaced on TMZ, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and a process to take his franchise away from him was put in motion.
Why the urgency? One of the reasons was that the NBA Playoffs were about to tip off and the league was facing a very real possibility of a player-led boycott absent any swift action.
That the league saw an opportunity to rid itself of a problem owner in a prime market might have helped move things along too. When Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer eventually bought the Clippers — a moribund franchise without an arena — for a record $2 billion, every owner in the league won.
That seemed like an ancillary benefit at the time, but as things have unfolded since, it’s easier to look at how the Clippers situation was resolved as a case of justice meeting opportunity rather than the NBA being consumed with doing the right thing.
There’s no clear-cut guide as to whether what Sarver is shown to have to have done is worthy of him being stripped of his franchise -- a process that Silver fairly points out is easier said than done. The investigation concluded that even though the Suns owner said and did a lot of stupid things and was an abusive boss who fostered a toxic workplace, “the investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
Translation: even though he did things that could easily be construed as racist or misogynist, he didn’t do them out of any ill will towards women or racialized minorities.
It’s a generous interpretation of the facts, at the very least, but also indicates how little appetite Silver or the fellow owners have for self-policing.
Sarver gets to keep his team and at the start of the 2023-24 season, will be able to resume his NBA affiliation and pretend nearly two decades of being an abusive jerk never happened.
Whether the NBA’s sanctioned and funded investigation will be the final word on the Sarver fiasco will perhaps test the limits of where the real power in the league lies.
Jahm Najafi, one of Sarver’s partners and the second-largest shareholder in the franchise, called for Sarver to resign in an open letter to Suns employees sent on Thursday night:
"Similar conduct by any CEO, executive director, president, teacher, coach, or any other position of leadership would warrant immediate termination …. The fact that Robert Sarver 'owns' the team does not give him a license to treat others differently than any other leader … If we, as sports leaders, are not held to the same standards then how can we expect a functional society with integrity and respect on any level?”
Shortly before Najafi called for Sarver’s resignation, the mayor of Phoenix and some council members said they too were “appalled” by the behaviour attributed to the Suns’ majority owner in the NBA report and would be investigating any actions the municipality could take in their wake.
On Friday morning, PayPal CEO and president Dan Schulman, whose company is the Suns' jersey sponsor, said: "We will not renew our sponsorship should Robert Sarver remain involved with the Suns organization, after serving his suspension."
Will momentum keep building to oust Sarver? Would enough of the league’s other 29 owners be prepared to speak up? Or could they have concerns about skeletons in their own closets that would hold them back?
Will the players -- particularly the league’s most powerful voices -- lean in a little harder?
What would happen if the likes of Paul and James led a boycott or sorts against the Suns?
It’s unfair that it would take that kind of lift by employees to make change, but if there’s one thing people in power recognize and respect, it’s leverage.
After the league itself chose to walk a squishy middle ground between being seen to discipline one of its own while otherwise protecting the status quo, perhaps the ultimate expression of player empowerment is what it would take to actually effect seismic change.