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Social Justice Activists Demand the Removal of Robert Sarver

A newly formed coalition has raised its concerns to NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

A coalition of social justice activists is demanding the ouster of Robert Sarver as majority owner of the Suns, citing the numerous accounts of racist and sexist behavior revealed in an ESPN story last November.

The group—which includes members of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network—detailed its concerns in a March 11 letter sent to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and on a website it launched today, under the hashtag: #SackSarver.

“We are profoundly disturbed by the reports of racism, misogyny and abusive behavior allegedly committed by Phoenix Suns majority owner Robert Sarver,” states the letter, which is signed by 10 people, representing a range of civil rights groups. “There is zero tolerance for such behavior in today’s society, and we expect the NBA and its leadership to hold Mr. Sarver accountable for these despicable actions, as was done in the case of Donald Sterling.”

In the letter and in separate interviews with Sports Illustrated, the letter’s signatories made it clear they see only one acceptable outcome: for the NBA to expel Sarver, just as it did in 2014 with Sterling, then the owner of the Clippers, after he was recorded making racist remarks.

“They agreed to us that they were going to establish new criteria, that they were going to have a zero tolerance for this kind of thing,” the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the National Action Network (NAN), told SI. “So that’s what we expected.”

Suns owner Robert Sarver

The NBA launched an investigation into Sarver in November and hired the Wachtell Lipton law firm to conduct it. The firm has since interviewed more than 300 people and was preparing to interview Sarver himself, as of a March 4 report by ESPN. It is unclear when the process will conclude, or when the results will be made public.

“We take the allegations contained in ESPN’s report very seriously and directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the matter,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement to SI. “That investigation is ongoing and once completed, its findings will provide the basis for any action the NBA may take.”

The league confirmed it had received the letter, which was also sent to all members of the NBA board of governors, i.e., Sarver’s fellow owners, who will be the ones to decide whether he should be disciplined or expelled.

Richardson and his fellow activists are disconcerted by how long the process is taking and are concerned the league might let the entire matter fade away without acting.

“These investigations need to be done with expediency,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, vice chair of the NAN and chair of the New York City Racial Justice Commission. “They need to move with deliberation, but with speed,” she said, because a lack of action could be interpreted as acceptance.

Jones Austin said she’s also worried that the NBA playoffs, which begin next month, will push the Sarver matter further into the background. The Suns have the best record in the NBA and are among the favorites to win the title.

“If you just let this linger and linger and linger, then we lose attention,” she said.

Activists had quietly been monitoring the situation for months, but they refrained from publicly lobbying until now, in hopes the NBA would wrap up its investigation and move swiftly to discipline Sarver, who is also the owner of the WNBA’s Mercury. That patience has dissipated, Richardson said, due to the league’s “tepid response.”

“We just couldn’t stand by anymore,” he said. “This shouldn’t take that long. I think they kind of expected it was gonna dry up or die down. But we’re committed to it not dying down. Because it’s too egregious.”

In the near term, Richardson said he and his peers want immediate assurances from Silver that the league intends to hold Sarver accountable. He declined to say whether the coalition might step up the pressure with demonstrations or boycotts, though he did note, “We’re not going to go away.”

The other signatories of the letter are Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation; Rev. Jonathan E.D. Moseley Sr. and Rev. Dr. Steffie Bartley, both regional directors for NAN; Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green of Mobilizing Preachers and Communities; Hector Sanchez Barba of Mi Familia Vota; David Hernandez of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Arizona; Dave Rodriguez, a former Arizona state legislator; and Erica Ford of LIFE Camp Inc., an activist on women’s issues.

The newly formed coalition is calling itself the American Sports Accountability Project, or ASAP. Its concerns go beyond Sarver or the NBA.

“As a Black woman, I can tell you that racism and misogyny … pervade every pillar of our society,” said Jones Austin. “It’s not just in policing, it’s not just in education, in jobs and wages; it's in every pillar of our society. And organized sports is no exception. And so this is this moment where we have to lean in and pay attention to it here as well.”

ESPN interviewed more than 70 former and current Suns employees for its investigative piece, which included multiple accounts of Sarver using the n-word, making disparaging remarks about women and generally creating a toxic and abusive workplace. Sarver has vigorously denied most of the accounts.

Sanchez, whose Mi Familia Vota group is headquartered in Arizona, said Sarver’s local reputation predates the ESPN story.

“The community knows who Sarver is, how he behaves, how he treats employees, how he treats women, how he treats people of color,” he said. “And I think at this point, there are enough facts to really show the kind of person he is, the kind of behavior he promotes.”

Members of ASAP view the Sarver situation as directly analogous to the Sterling case in 2014 and were hoping for a similarly quick resolution. The main difference is that Sterling was caught on tape making racist remarks, which spurred outrage not only among the public but, critically, among NBA players and sponsors. Silver, who had been commissioner for only a few months, announced a lifetime ban of Sterling just four days after the recordings surfaced.

“The lawyer in me says precedent has been set, and our commissioner will act accordingly,” said Jones Austin. “I can’t imagine how the commissioner would not center on the volume of information that has been uncovered and feel that nothing need be done.”

Although Sarver is being accused of multiple offenses, by dozens of people, the case against him is, to date, largely anecdotal. It remains to be seen whether investigators find a so-called smoking gun. The members of ASAP contend it isn’t necessary.

“We take issue with the notion that victims must film or record the abuses being committed against them in order for those abuses to be considered true,” the activists say in their letter to Silver. “Indeed, shifting the burden to victims in this way is a key deterrent to progress in our struggle for racial and social justice in the United States and throughout the world. It is a tactic that deserves no home within the NBA.

“Let us be clear: we believe Mr. Sarver’s victims."

“All the facts that I have seen are more than enough to call for the removal of Sarver,” said Sanchez.

The league could theoretically choose a less drastic path, depending on the findings of its investigation. Options could include steep fines and a ban from actively running the team and attending games. But Richardson and his colleagues say anything short of Sarver’s expulsion will be considered insufficient.

“Keep him in the system, and pick another financial fine or something?” Richardson said. “No, no, no, no. We have to be systemically radical in terms of eliminating this kind of cancer.”

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