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A workplace investigator’s thoughts and takeaways on a recent NBA investigation

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If you’re a fan of the NBA (“the League”), as I am, you may have heard about two high profile stories that sprang up during the off-season.  In the Western Conference, Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns1, was suspended for one year and fined $10 million, following a large investigation into allegations of racism, misogyny, and bullying in the workplace (the details of which I will briefly get into later).2

In the Eastern Conference, Ime Udoka, the head coach of the Boston Celtics, received a suspension from the Celtics organization for the entire upcoming season following a lengthy independent investigation that found he had violated multiple team policies.3

These two cases are different in several significant aspects. For one, the League commissioned the independent investigation into the Suns organization and Mr. Sarver after ESPN broke with a story about the toxic culture within the organization. In contrast, the investigation into Mr. Udoka was initiated by the Celtics organization after a female staffer, initially believed to be in a consensual relationship with Mr. Udoka, accused him of making unwanted comments toward her.  Secondly, the investigation report of Mr. Sarver has been publicly released,4 while the details and findings of Mr. Udoka’s investigation, at the time that this post was written, are still unreleased.

Now that the investigations are done and the proverbial hammer has dropped, these two organizations are left to deal with the messy fallout. These two stories both involve men in leadership roles of large, successful organizations and, I think, both provide a cautionary tale to employers about how important it can be to apply proportional, fair, and transparent discipline following findings of misconduct. This is especially true when confidentiality is heavily compromised and gossip is rampant, as is the case for both Mr. Sarver and Mr. Udoka.

In the case of Mr. Sarver, the report was publicly released on September 13, 2022, over 10 months after the ESPN article was published.5 The report did not find that all allegations were substantiated, however, there were several key findings of wrongdoing by Mr. Sarver, including:

    • Mr. Sarver, on at least five occasions during his tenure with the Suns/Mercury organizations, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.
    • Mr. Sarver engaged in instances of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women, and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct towards male employees.
    • Mr. Sarver engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including yelling and cursing at them.

It is also important to note that the investigation made no finding that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.6

What made this report more controversial was the swirl of rumours about Mr. Sarver’s misconduct before the report was made public, and the public anger that followed when it was announced that the only penalty he would face was a one-year suspension and a $10 million fine. In contrast, Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who faced a similar reckoning for making racist comments, received a lifetime ban from the League.7 Amidst the public outrage for what some consider to be a mere “wrap on the knuckles” from the League, Mr. Sarver announced that he would be selling his ownership of the Suns and the Mercury teams and stepping down after an 18-year tenure as managing partner, adding further instability to the Suns organization, which, incidentally, was also implicated in the investigation for lacking proper organizational policies and controls.

So, as the sun sets on the Sarver saga, what takeaways can organizations (the Boston Celtics, possibly?) learn from this?

1. The investigation brought a sense of closure

The investigation report substantiated some of the alleged behaviour, enough that disciplinary action was taken by the League, and sponsors, such as PayPal threatened to sever ties with the Suns organization if he remained the owner. Ultimately, Mr. Sarver was pressured to step down as owner and that change is expected to happen in the near future.

2. The report, made public, allowed for an understanding of the League’s response (somewhat)

The public release of the report allowed for a more nuanced conversation and thus, a better understanding of why the League issued Mr. Sarver a more “lenient” sanction compared to Mr. Sterling. For instance, Adam Silver, the League commissioner, provided reasons for why the case with Mr. Sarver was “very different” from Mr. Sterling. For one, Mr. Sarver was found to have said the N-word, but only in the context of quoting others and there was no finding that his actions were motivated by racial animus. This is in stark contrast to Mr. Sterling, who was caught on tape using racial slurs himself among other instances of clear racist behaviour.

3. Further communication around the process and aftermath is needed

The public and media’s responses of confusion around the investigation process, and the results flowing from that process, indicate that more communication would be beneficial.  For example, there were reports that witnesses were complaining that details they provided during the investigation did not find its way into the report. There may be legitimate reasons for why not every piece of evidence is included in a report, but this can easily be acknowledged and explained in the report itself, so it does not appear as though there were omissions. Further, the public outrage over the sanctions from the League, while more understandable in light of the report being made public, have not entirely gone away (see tweets from NBA stars, including Lebron James and Chris Paul8). Clearly more work remains around communicating the League’s response to the report (or considering the proportionality of the response). This is the League’s opportunity to communicate and reinforce its stated values along with the effectiveness of such investigations. That only works if others can see the value that it brings.

One concluding thought for both large organizations, like the Boston Celtics, which garner lots of media attention, or small organizations, which may be plagued with rumours and gossip abound: both need to pay attention to how things unfolded for the Phoenix Suns, noting in particular that, whenever the confidentiality of an investigation is widely compromised, an organization’s work is not over, just because the investigation has ended.

1 He is also the owner of the Women’s National Basketball Association franchise: the Phoenix Mercury.

2 “NBA Releases findings of independent investigation into Robert Sarver, Phoenix Suns” (September 13, 2022), online: NBA Media Ventures https://www.nba.com/news/nba-investigation-robert-sarver-suns-official-release?

3 Zach Koons, “Ime Udoka Made Unwanted Comments Toward Female Staffer, per Report” (September 23, 2022) online: Sports Illustrated https://www.si.com/nba/2022/09/23/ime-udoka-celtics-suspension-unwanted-comments-toward-female-staffer-report

4 https://www.wlrk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Phoenix-Suns-Report.pdf

5 Baxter Holmes, “Allegations of racism and misogyny within the Phoenix Suns: Inside Robert Sarver’s 17-year tenure as owner” (September 13, 2022), online: ESPN https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/32440987/phoenix-suns-robert-sarver-allegations-racism-misogyny

6 Note 2.

7 https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2042902-clippers-owner-donald-sterling-banned-for-life-from-nba-for-racist-remarks

8 Duane Rankin, “NBPA calls out Robert Sarver’s ‘actions and conduct’ from NBA’s 10-month investigation” (September 14, 2022), online: AZCentral https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/nba/suns/2022/09/14/nbpa-calls-out-robert-sarver-phoenix-suns-nba-investigation/10384190002

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