Lauren Di Lella
You’re Fired: Hostile Work Environments Within the NBA and NFL
Hostile workplace claims against team managers are unfortunately nothing new to the world of professional sports. Recently, Robert Sarver, the owner of the National Basketball Association’s (“NBA”) Phoenix Suns and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (“WNBA”) Phoenix Mercury, has been at the center of public scrutiny following a league investigation. Specifically, the investigation revealed he engaged in racist and sexist behaviors, creating a hostile work environment for his employees. The NBA hired attorneys to lead the investigation last fall after an ESPN report found that Sarver allegedly made racist remarks “when recounting [the] statements of others.”
After reviewing 80,000 documents, including emails, text messages, and videos, and interviewing over 320 current and former employees who worked for Sarver during his 18-year tenure with the Suns and the Mercury, the investigation found that Sarver said “the N-word” on several occasions in the workplace, made sex-related comments to female employees, and repeatedly engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees by yelling and cursing at them. The investigation also concluded that the Suns’ Human Resources Department was ineffective and did not serve as a trusted resource for employees who were the subjects of improper workplace conduct.
The NBA responded immediately, suspending Sarver for one year and fining him $10 million. The Suns also hired a new head of Human Resources, who has since implemented a series of policies and workplace trainings, including a confidential hotline for workplace misconduct. While no legal action has been taken thus far, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) classifies harassment as a form of employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where such conduct is “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” As such, it is possible that a harassment claim will be filed against Sarver in the future.
Sarver issued an apology and shortly thereafter announced his decision to sell both teams. His decision likely stems from the external pressures he faced in response to his actions. For example, one of the organization’s major corporate partners PayPal stated it would no longer sponsor the Suns if Sarver remained part of the franchise, citing that his conduct was “unacceptable and conflict[ed] with [Paypal’s] values.” The General Manager of the Suns, James Jones, and star point guard, Chris Paul, expressed disappointment in the NBA’s punishment for Sarver and pushed for a harsher penalty. Other NBA employees called for a lifetime ban.
This would not have been the first time the NBA imposed a lifetime ban on a team owner for egregious behavior in the workplace. In 2014, the League banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million, the maximum amount permitted at the time, for racist comments he made during a leaked audio recording. The recording revealed Sterling criticizing his then-girlfriend for “associating with Black people” at the team’s home games. The Clippers lost several sponsorships as a result and multiple advertisers requested their commercials be removed from Clippers games. Clippers players also held a demonstration in protest of Sterling.
In response to backlash over the penalty differential between Sarver and Sterling, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explained that the investigation’s evidence shows Sarver “has evolved as a person” and learned from his behavior, especially since many of the offenses cited occurred earlier in his tenure as owner. Moreover, Silver noted that the NBA had more direct evidence against Sterling in the form of a physical recording. 
In contrast, some would argue that the NBA deserves kudos for addressing these claims at all since other professional sports organizations have turned a blind eye to similar allegations. In July 2021, the NFL concluded an 11-month investigation into the “toxic workplace culture” created by the Washington Commanders’ owner, Daniel Snyder. At least 50 former employees made allegations over the span of 18 years and claimed that Snyder engaged in sexual abuse and harassment, bullying, and public humiliation. Former employees detailed the lack of support or accountability from the Commanders’ Human Resources Department, and the retaliatory firings that occurred for reporting inappropriate behavior. Moreover, former Commanders cheerleaders have come forward as well, accusing Snyder of sexual abuse and harassment, which recently led the team to suspend its cheerleading program. 
Unlike the NBA’s investigation of Sarver, which included a public report with detailed findings, the NFL concealed the specific findings of its investigation against Snyder and did not release any public statements. Instead, the League fined Snyder $10 million for creating a “highly unprofessional” workplace but did not suspend him. Snyder stepped aside from his management duties shortly thereafter but has since resumed his work with the team.
Unsatisfied with the lack of transparency from the NFL, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched its own inquiry into the workplace culture at the Washington Commanders in October 2021. Congress’s investigation is still ongoing, and in February 2022, another former female employee came forward with a new sexual harassment allegation against Snyder. After refusing to cooperate with Congress and declining to testify on multiple occasions about the team’s workplace culture, Snyder finally agreed to a private deposition in July 2022 to avoid being subpoenaed.
As evidenced by the NBA’s responses to Sarver and Sterling, the NFL has the opportunity to do more by publicly disclosing the findings of its investigation against Snyder and providing an appropriate punishment for the atrocities he committed in the workplace. As two of the most prominent sports organizations in the world with a great deal of money, power, and influence, the NBA and NFL must lead by example to send the clear message that abusive behaviors and conduct are simply not permitted in the workplace. Moreover, these organizations must restore balance to the uneven power dynamics that have allowed team managers to take advantage of lower-level employees. While the NBA has taken steps in the right direction, the NFL must follow in its footsteps.
It will be imperative going forward for the NBA and NFL to follow through on their commitments to eliminate racism, misogyny, and hate in the workplace by implementing new policies and trainings and hiring staff who are committed to protecting employees. At the same time, there is continued opportunity for advertisers and fans to protest and use their voices to influence a change.
 Photo: Phoenix Suns, Wikipedia (viewed 6 Oct. 2022) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Suns.  Photo: Washington Commanders, DCIst (viewed 11 Oct. 2022) https://dcist.com/story/20/08/05/washington-football-team-name-finances-dan-snyder.  Photo: Los Angeles Clippers, Yahoo Sports (viewed 6 Oct. 2022) https://sports.yahoo.com/nba/teams/la-clippers/.  Brian Windhorst, Phoenix Suns in Shock as Robert Sarver Saga Hangs Over Team Entering Season, ESPN (26 Sept. 2022) https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/34671318/phoenix-suns-shock-robert-sarver-saga-hangs-team-entering-season.  Matias Grez, ‘It was Disturbing:’ Phoenix Suns Players and Staff Respond to Robert Sarver Report During NBA Media Day, CNN (Sept. 27, 2022) https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/27/sport/chris-paul-devin-booker-monty-williams-react-robert-sarver-spt-intl.  National Basketball Association (“NBA”), NBA Releases Findings of Independent Investigation Into Robert Sarver, Phoenix Suns (Sept. 13, 2022) https://www.nba.com/news/nba-investigation-robert-sarver-suns-official-release.  Id.  Grez, supra.  NBA, supra.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Harassment (viewed Oct. 6, 2022).  Grez, supra.  Associated Press, PayPal Says it Will No Longer Sponsor Phoenix Suns if Sarver Remains Owner, The Guardian (17 Sept. 2022) https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/sep/17/paypal-roberts-sarver-phoenix-suns-sponsorship#:~:text=PayPal%20said%20Friday%20that%20the,franchise%20when%20his%20suspension%20ends.  Brian Windhorst, Robert Sarver is Selling the Phoenix Suns, But the NBA’s Work Isn’t Done Yet, ESPN (21 Sept. 2022) https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/34637020/robert-sarver-selling-phoenix-suns-nba-work-done.  Id.  Duane Rankin and Arizona Republic, ‘Disgusted’ Phoenix Suns Express Disappointment with Robert Sarver Investigation Findings, Yahoo Sports (26 Sept. 2022) https://sports.yahoo.com/disgusted-phoenix-suns-express-disappointment-005518531.html.  Dana Scott, Robert Sarver vs. Donald Sterling: Both NBA Owners Behaved Badly, So why was Only One Banned for Life?, AZCentral (14 Sept. 2022) https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/nba/suns/2022/09/14/robert-sarver-donald-sterling-nba-investigations-different/10370679002/; see also Reuters, Clippers Owner Sterling Banned for Life and Fined $2.5M, CNBC (29 Apr. 2014) https://www.cnbc.com/2014/04/29/sterling-slapped-with-5-million-fine-indefinite-suspension-nbc-citing-sources.html.  Scott, supra.  Reuters, supra.  Rankin and Republic, supra.  Scott, supra.  Tisha Thompson, Washington Commanders Owner Daniel Snyder Again Rebuffs House Oversight Committee’s Invitation to Testify in Workplace Culture Investigation of Franchise, ESPN (20 June, 2022) https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34121330/washington-commanders-owner-daniel-snyder-again-rebuffs-house-oversight-committee-invitation-testify-workplace-culture-investigation-franchise.  David DeChant, Timeline of Dan Snyder Allegations: Commanders Owner Testifies Before Congress, The Athletic (28 July, 2022) https://theathletic.com/3146320/2022/07/28/dan-snyder-timeline-washington-commanders/; see also Tom Ramstack, Washington Commanders’ Owner Accused of Covering Up Toxic Workplace, The Well News (22 June 2022) https://www.thewellnews.com/sports/washington-commanders-owner-accused-of-covering-up-toxic-workplace/.  DeChant, supra.  Mike Florio, NBA Gives a Lesson in Transparency Regarding Workplace Misconduct Allegations, NBC Sports (13 Sept. 2022) https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2022/09/13/nba-gives-nfl-a-lesson-in-transparency-regarding-workplace-misconduct-allegations/.  DeChant, supra.  Id.  Will Hobson, Document Reveals Details of 2009 Sexual Assault Allegation Against Daniel Snyder, The Washington Post (21 June 2022) https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/06/21/dan-snyder-sexual-assault-allegation/.  Id.  DeChant, supra.  Marc J. Spears, Suns Trying to ‘Block Out the Noise,’ Get Past Team Owner Robert Sarver’s Racism and Sexism, Andscape (27 Sept. 2022) https://andscape.com/features/suns-trying-to-block-out-the-noise-get-past-team-owner-robert-sarvers-racism-and-sexism/.