Nobody wants discovery.
With that, a suspension and meager fine was always the most likely conclusion for the NBA in its findings for Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver after a nearly yearlong investigation.
The calls for Sarver to lose his team are predicable and even admirable, but the next step would’ve likely been litigation from Sarver’s side — followed by discovery, which opens everyone’s doors and everyone’s closets for public scrutiny.
Discovery was the invisible weapon Colin Kaepernick wielded in his lawsuit against the NFL, leading to a settlement. Discovery was the not-so-friendly fire that caught Jon Gruden between the eyes, his emails from years ago that cost him his $100 million gig with the Las Vegas Raiders.
So, Sarver will sneeze $10 million dollars and disappear from the public eye for a while, even if he keeps his hand on the throttle the entire time.
Give the NBA credit for relative transparency, its process was more impressive than the conclusion.
They showed their work — kinda — which by comparison to the “la-la-la, we can’t hear you, we don’t see you” approach the NFL has taken to misbehavior with players and team owners would appear admirable.
The report indicates there are videos of Sarver’s behavior taken by employees, but it doesn’t appear they will be made public. Again, more than what its counterparts can say it has done in ownership investigations.
But that’s not the line the NBA should judge itself against. And this was always going to be the maximum penalty the league would levy without a leaked smoking gun.
There was no damning public video, no scathing, imagination-stoking situation one could wrap his or her arms around. Reading about women being berated constantly doesn’t seem to stoke the flames of outrage today, their words not believed, only scrutinized.
It was just racism, just sexism, just bullying, just improper treatment of employees, just sophomoric behavior and at the end of this, Sarver will keep his profits and will keep control of his team. The only way he’ll feel anything is being banished to the shadows for a year — so he won’t be able to feel public shame.
But it’s reasonable to ask, and to feel — if this wasn’t enough to bring him down, where’s the line? Is there a line? What crime could Sarver have committed which would’ve made NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the team owners press for his removal?
Or was it merely fear from the other owners, rich men behaving badly?
It’s pollyannaish to believe the NBA feels only Sarver has exhibited terrible conduct. It isn’t rushing to investigate every whisper it hears around the way. The NBA multiverse is small, and the grapevine moves quickly. Notes are compared at every level, so nobody wants to press for the next contestant on that summer jam screen.
Among the transgressions confirmed, Sarver was found to say and repeat the “N-word” on at least five occasions, exposing his genitalia to employees, attempting to expose a subordinate’s private parts, berating women and making comments on their perceived emotional state.
Oh yeah, and making a mockery of diversity.
If our current cultural discourse is a guide, we’ve seen that behavior rewarded, not reprimanded.
The NBA knew what it was doing, both in precedent and timing. Silver will stand in front and take the hollow-pointed stares from the media — which is what he’s paid to do, mind you — and say all the platitudes about zero tolerance and reiterate what he wants his league to stand for.
All of which he truly believes.
But it's in contrast to the tone he set in his first true act as commissioner in 2014, when he was able to banish then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life. Sterling paid the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in United States history — and yet it was sex, lies and V. Stiviano that brought him down.
Well, it made him a couple billion dollars richer, if we’re being honest. Not to be too cynical, but those team owners knew the Clippers were a gold mine hiding in plain sight and a sale would subsequently raise the values of all other member franchises.
More germane, it created an illusion Silver has the team owners in line, not the other way around. It took a special set of circumstances to produce that result, and those won’t be duplicated here.
The current state feels no different than Congress — Silver was not going to put Sarver’s worthiness of owning a team to a vote of Sarver’s peers without knowing he had the three-fourths needed to oust Sarver.
Remember, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly railed against Sterling’s ouster, and it’s likely he wasn’t alone. He wasn’t positioning himself as a Sterling ally, but he felt a dangerous precedent was being set.
It should take indisputable evidence that goes beyond a standard of reasonable doubt — and honestly, the evidence has lapped the field.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone to state Sarver deserves to be in the club, but clearly no one with Silver’s ear wanted to reset the standard.
There’s no shortage of billionaires or groups looking to get into business with the NBA. The rumors of expansion in Seattle and Las Vegas, a looming television rights deal and overall booming business means the league could get from under Sarver if it truly wanted to.
Pick a Black person, or a woman of any race. Ask if they’re surprised someone in a privileged position uttered such phrases that register as offensive, and that little was done about it — particularly in the wake of overwhelming evidence that clearly points to a rotten human being.
Even the NBA, in its findings that confirmed plenty in ESPN's investigative reporting on Sarver from nearly a year ago, placed this gem in its 43-page report:
“In light of these accounts and the totality of the evidence reviewed by investigators, the investigation makes no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
Racism without a racist. Sexism without a sexist.
Unfortunately, it’s the world we live in, where a lot of times the wealthy folks win and the world keeps turning. Accountability sounds nice, but it’s a reason so many keep their heads down despite the environment that engulfs them, knowing what’s said around them and behind them yet keep on trucking.
Coming forward often isn’t worth it.
And the belief a higher power, be it human resources or the NBA, would have their backs, is sadly too idealistic.
The appalled are those who’ve never been privy to working within these circumstances. It’s not an acceptable practice, but it’s often the cost of doing business on the journey to success.
As much as we’d like to think the sports world is similar to our ecosystems, it isn’t. There’s a different set of rules that apply, and what flies as the pale in the real world wouldn’t qualify in sports.
And if confirmation of racism and sexism and inappropriate behavior meant CEOs of powerful corporations would be removed, plenty of leaders wouldn’t be in their positions. Maybe, if nothing else, Silver knows that and did what he could with his limited power to conclude this saga.
Because nobody wanted discovery.