The NBA Isn’t Nearly as Progressive as It Thinks It Is

The NBA Isn’t Nearly as Progressive as It Thinks It Is 1

Things got dicey for Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver real quick. In a recent investigation by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the longtime reporter interviewed over seventy Suns employees past and present, the vast majority of whom described Sarver as “brutal to work for.” They say Sarver sat at the center of a racist, misogynistic, and domineering atmosphere where toxicity stretched across almost every department. Former coaches Earl Watson and Corliss Williamson spoke on the record about several social interactions that set their racist alarms off—from something as prickly as, “They can say n****r, why can’t I?” arguments to Watson allegedly being fired because he’s a Klutch Sports client.

The article further details wild allegations like Sarver passing around scantily-clad photos of his own wife to his employees who bounced it around “like a hot potato,” and his decision to hire Lindsey Hunter, the obviously under-experienced developmental coach, as head coach over Dan Majerle in 2013 because, according to the report, “These n*****s need n*****s.” He offered a similar racial rationale when hiring Earl Watson in 2017: “A young Black coach could better relate to Black players… and could speak their language,” one former Suns executive said. Yikes. An oddly-precise instance where the flimsiness of diversity and inclusion is laid bare. Here’s an owner who is so racist that he’ll hire the Black guys, even the woefully inexperienced ones, simply because they can “speak their language” or whatever. But the most fascinating part of this story —although asking Blake Griffin’s older brother if he shaved his balls was quite the surprise—was a small quote from one Suns co-owner who said, “The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale. It’s embarrassing as an owner.”

Clearly this isn’t a good look at all for the Suns and the league—though let’s not get it twisted: if we’re looking squarely at the makeup of the NBA’s billionaire owners, the league is nowhere near a bastion of progressive freedom. To be a billionaire at all mandates a willingness to exploit people and rationalize it however one sees fit. But the quote from the co-owner might reveal Sarver’s bigger problem: it doesn’t seem like other owners like him which, according to precedent, was one of the main reasons why Donald Sterling lost his grip on the LA Clippers’ organization after 30-plus years of demonstrably racist, sexist, and downright creepiness. V. Stiviano dropped the hottest recorded phone call of the 2010s, and the owners decided he’ll have to hate from outside the club. If Sarver loses his team at the end of all of this, I doubt it will be by the league’s hand as much as his being a racist, sexist asshole who also happens to be loud.

There are likely other owners who share Sarver’s views on race and gender. As a Houstonian, I’ve had to take some time away from the timebomb that is Tilman Fertitta’s tenure as Rockets owner. Fertitta is a staunch supporter of the former pumpkin-in-chief—he donated $140,000 to his re-election campaign, and during the pandemic, he tried to slash employee benefits at the popular Post Oak Hotel in Houston, but when public backlash forced him into reneging, he furloughed a total of 40,000 employees, where a whopping 70% of their staff had been laid off. James Harden and Russell Westbrook reportedly wanting out of Houston over Fertitta’s Trump ties be damned—40,000 people lost their jobs across Fertitta’s casinos and restaurants.

Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets, makes remarks toward President Donald Trump during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Doug Mills/Getty

If we’re thinking politically, where billionaire ownership places their dollars reveals more than any BLM logos on a basketball court ever could. According to an extensive report by John Gonzalez of The Ringer, 80.9 percent of political donations by NBA owners have gone to Republicans and their interests. Five owners have donated to Trump directly, including Fertitta, the LA Lakers’ Jim Buss, New York Knicks’ James Dolan, Orlando Magic’s Dan DeVos, and San Antonio Spurs’ Julianna Holt. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert gave $750,000 just to inaugurate him. Sarver threw in a cool $179,400 to the cause himself.

I’m always curious about the expanse of racism and white supremacist notions among the NBA Board of Governors. So much ink has been spilled about the Player Empowerment Movement. But platforms do not equate to actual power. These players use basketball as a platform to do whatever: express themselves, sell merch, talk shit, snag endorsements, etc. But none of that means having influence—not when a large source of income, joy, and fulfillment is found beneath an oligarchical system that exploits them and believes that working with them means complete control of one’s autonomy. Sarver said the quiet part out loud: “Do I own you?” he asked a horrified female employee, “Are you one of mine?”

Sarver said the quiet part out loud: “Do I own you?” he asked a horrified female employee, “Are you one of mine?”

We don’t have to think of this in entirely political terms either. The Dallas Mavericks—whose owner, Mark Cuban, is said to be an “independent” who goes to conservative guys like Steve Bannon for advice and the liberal guys to solicit the latest socially acceptable positions on topics like race and sex—were under intense scrutiny for similar issues in 2018. Back then, dozens of employees came forward to Sports Illustrated and spoke up about the sexual harassment, domestic violence, and intimidation that had become the norm at the Mavs. Although Cuban pleaded ignorance to the terrible culture, as an owner who prides himself in being all-in on the Mavs, into all the weeds, we’re supposed to believe that he somehow missed the countless complaints against multiple creeps in his offices. And the consequences were minimal. They just had to fire some folks, hire some other folks, and we’ve pretty much forgotten about that.

Oh, and lest we forget the Golden State Warriors’ billionaire VC co-owner who took it upon himself to shove then-Raptors star Kyle Lowry after he tumbled into the stands. He was only suspended for a playoff series.

The NBA Isn’t Nearly as Progressive as It Thinks It Is 2

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA playoff game between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on April 21, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The NBA banned Sterling for life for “deeply offensive and harmful” racist comments that sparked a national firestorm.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

It’s easy to forget all this ugliness when the NBA media is so focused on either the game at hand, the latest trade move, or probing players for their takes on the latest social issue. No one places a microphone in front of Tilman Fertitta and asks him about the 70% of his staff who have to look for work during a pandemic. The owners are never taken to task for, say, the years of racist housing practices perpetrated by Donald Sterling or the ways Dan Gilbert’s company Quicken Loans engaged in predatory lending in order to lock in loans for people who would never be able to pay them back after interest. That federal lawsuit cost Gilbert $32.5 million to settle. But then we want to act shocked when the Baxter Holmes’ of the world bomb the shell and bring all this to light. Sarver’s “warning signs” had been there since 2004. Though these fantastic investigations are helpful, they are also spectacular. They’re unique, and treated as such by the owners themselves. Sarver isn’t quiet, therefore he’s a league liabilityone that could further expose more of the owners’ beliefs and practices. So in their eyes, maybe cutting him loose isn’t the worst thing.