On Sept. 13th, 2022, the NBA released the results of their nine-month-long investigation into Phoenix Suns majority owner Robert Sarver’s workplace misconduct. The NBA launched an investigation in Nov. 2021 following the release of an article by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, which provided witnesses’ reports of Sarver’s racist and sexist actions. The investigation, conducted by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm hired by the NBA, confirmed the reports in Holmes’ article. It also detailed several more instances of Sarver’s racism, sexism, and sexual harassment of employees. For example:
- He used the N-word many times despite several employees telling him that it is never okay for him to say it.
- He asked a woman who worked for the Suns if he “owned” her.
- And he exposed his “genitals to a male employee who was on his knees in front of Sarver performing a fitness check that Sarver had requested.”
The 43-page report is available to the public. If you want more details of Sarver’s despicable behavior, I urge you to read the report by following this link. Many of the NBA’s official statements have neglected to address some of Sarver’s most disgusting moments. In response to the law firm’s findings, Adam Silver chose to fine Sarver $10 million, the maximum allowed by the CBA. He also suspended him from working with the Suns in any capacity for a year. Sarver has since said he’s in the process of selling the team.
While this is undoubtedly a form of punishment, it does not seem nearly severe enough, given Sarver’s repeated actions. The NBA banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who committed similar actions, for life. Silver publicly urged the NBA Board of Governors (aka the other team owners) to force Sterling to sell his portion of the Clippers via the required vote process.
How Can Timberwolves Ownership Contribute to Change?
Suns’ minority owner and Vice Chairman Jahm Najafi has provided one example of how owners can contribute to changing the culture of NBA ownership groups. Najafi recently spoke out condemning Sarver’s behavior, saying “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.” At the end of his statement, Najafi also called for Sarver to resign from his ownership position.
The easiest way for the Timberwolves ownership group to contribute to making a change would be to make a public statement of their own condemning Sarver’s behavior. They should express empathy for the people Sarver harmed and reaffirm their commitment to preventing similar behavior from happening in their workplace.
Ownership groups are typically quiet when it comes to speaking out against other team owners. Whether they’re afraid of rocking Old Boys’ Club’s yacht or because it’s a “calculated business decision,” public statements tend to be few and far between.
Still, it is not unprecedented. When the NBA ousted Sterling, the Board of Governors was thought to be unanimous in their support of the decision. Bleacher Report compiled a long list of public statements that many different teams released, all condemning Sterling and expressing their support of Silver. It’s tough to say why the response to Sarver’s actions hasn’t been the same. However, Silver’s absurd statement that Sarver didn’t act with “animus” seems to be encouraging people to toe the company line.
So far, the Timberwolves ownership has yet to make a statement. But there is still time if they want to. As of now, saying nothing seems to be par for the course for the Board of Governors. Najafi appears to be the only owner currently taking a hard stance.
Even if they don’t make a public statement does not mean we should lose hope for a Timberwolves ownership group that works to effect change in the NBA. Leadership is in the process of being passed from Glen Taylor to Lore and Rodriguez in 2023. So far, Lore and Rodriguez have said all the right things regarding their goal to make the Timberwolves organization a diverse and equitable space where people feel comfortable working.
In his introductory press conference, Lore said that people are the most important part of any organization and that he wants to create a culture that reflects his values and the values of the people working there. Lore believes that if this culture is created then the Timberwolves organization will be a place where people “want to play, want to work, want to be a part of. And it’s not always easy, sometimes living your values means you have to make hard decisions that are not in the best interest economically, for example.”
What Have They Done So Far to Make Good On This Statement?
Firing Gersson Rosas was one of the first things that Lore and Rodriguez did as owners. At the time of Rosas’s firing, ESPN reported that “sources close to the situation told Shelburne that incoming owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez had been evaluating Rosas’ performance this summer and had planned to relieve him of his duties at some point.” While Rosas’s extramarital relationship with a coworker likely sped up the process of his dismissal, many other reports of Rosas’s actions also contributed to an uncomfortable work environment.
The Athletic reported that some employees “said Rosas worked his staff long hours without giving much input into the decision-making process” and that “rival team executives and agents would complain about how Rosas treated relationships and negotiations.” They also reported that when the complaints reached Taylor, Lore, and Rodriguez, they had “major concerns about what they were hearing.” They believed “the working environment that was created by the tension was not sustainable and ran counter to the visions they have for how things should be run.”
Firing Rosas exemplifies how Lore and Rodriguez have acted congruently with their stated values. Removing someone from leadership who many in the organization felt created an uncomfortable work environment for employees and made the organization’s work environment better for those employees. By acting on their employees’ complaints, they made good on their statement that building a team culture requires upholding your values and the values of your employees, even if it means making hard decisions.
Around the NBA, much more work must be done to fully eradicate toxic work environments created by people abusing their power. However, it is encouraging that the Timberwolves’ new ownership seems to have their head in the right place and (so far) are actively taking steps towards making their organization a better place to work.