Phoenix’s road back to the Finals could soon be lined with protesters, led by civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, if the NBA’s investigation into Suns owner Robert Sarver does not conclude soon.
In a call with NBA officials Friday, Sharpton conveyed his frustration with the lack of action following a November news report that detailed extensive accounts of racist and misogynistic behavior by Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Mercury. If the NBA does not wrap up its investigation in the next three weeks—or at least provide a concrete timetable for doing so—Sharpton is vowing to bring demonstrations to Phoenix in April.
“I communicated to them, I appreciate that there’s an investigation into these allegations,” Sharpton told Sports Illustrated. “But it seems to me like it’s dragging, to the point where it seems like they want people to forget about it. And I’m not going to let people forget about it.”
Sharpton’s National Action Network is holding its annual convention April 6 to 9. If the NBA has not signaled any progress by then, he says, “it is very likely … that I’ll be announcing some direct action against Sarver.”
An NBA spokesman offered no direct response Friday, but confirmed that Sharpton spoke with deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. The conversation lasted about 18 minutes, according to Sharpton.
“I made it very clear that Sarver has a history of abusive and misogynistic and racist behavior, and this has been going on, according to all these allegations, for about 20 years,” Sharpton says, alluding to an ESPN report published Nov. 4. “I mean, using the n-word and treating human beings like his property. This is exactly the kind of toxic and racist behavior that should have no place in the sports leagues in this country.”
Sarver has strongly denied the allegations, and says he welcomes the investigation.
An NBA investigation into Sarver, led by the Wachtell Lipton law firm, has been ongoing since November. More than 300 people had been interviewed as of early March, per ESPN. The league has provided no substantive updates or indicated when the investigation will conclude.
“When it first happened, one of the young activists out there (in Phoenix) called me,” Sharpton says. “And I didn’t jump the gun on them. I gave them months. But my patience has run out.”
Sharpton will be giving a speech on the Sarver matter Saturday at 10 a.m. ET in New York.
Until now, civil rights leaders have largely adopted a wait-and-see stance, refraining from any public campaigns against Sarver or the league. That changed this week. On Thursday, a coalition of activists launched a campaign called the American Sports Accountability Project (or ASAP), along with a website and a social media slogan: #SackSarver.
ASAP, which includes Sharpton’s organization, wants Sarver ousted as Suns owner—just as the NBA banished former Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was recorded making racist remarks in 2014.
“I’d like to hear that they’ve decided like they decided in the case of Sterling,” Sharpton says. “If they are not that far, I would like to hear a cutoff date of when their investigation is over and when they will announce their findings.”
Sharpton noted that the league acted against Sterling within days after the tapes of Sterling’s remarks became public. The Sarver case seems to be taking longer because of the litany of accounts and perhaps due to the absence of physical evidence like the Sterling audiotape.
“They told me that they do not feel they are dragging,” Sharpton says. “When is this going to end? I mean, you have criminal investigations don’t last this long, in federal court. This is crazy. And there’s clear evidence here, and this man has continued to function and make money while it’s gone on.”
In 2014, Sharpton was part of a delegation of activists that met directly with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to push for a quick resolution of the Sterling case. “And in the meeting, he made multiple commitments that they would not tolerate bigotry,” Sharpton says. “And so far, they’ve lived up to that. I want to make sure they live up to that in this situation.”
But if nothing happens in the next few weeks, the Suns can expect some sort of “mass action” in Phoenix, Sharpton says. Rallies, protests and boycotts are possibilities—all coming at the same time that the Suns, the defending Western Conference champions, will be preparing for the playoffs.
“I’ve never been accused of not knowing how to have the right timing for the maximum visibility of a protest,” Sharpton says.
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