The question was a logical one, or at least it seemed like one. The noted fact-finder/fist-shaker Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated asked NBA Commissioner Adam Silver how it could be that Robert Sarver, the deeply porcine and sludge-powered franchise operator of the Phoenix Suns, still had his franchise when anyone else in any other walk of life who did what he had repeatedly done would have been fired, and by fired we mean out of a cannon.
And Silver gave the answer that was wholly unsatisfying but was undeniably true. He doesn’t have the power to kick Sarver out of even a place he doesn’t deserve to remain.
That’s the IRHIP (Incredible Rankness Has Its Privileges) of massive wealth. The most heinous of wrongs are not forgiven or forgotten but simply ignored. Sarver essentially admitted to every awful bit of behavior he was charged with and still vehemently fought punishment on the to-date-inviolable principle that he is Bob Sarver. It is a ridiculous standard, but it is a standard, and it is one his fellow team owners have and would happily apply were they revealed to be the social misfits he has been found to be.
As this fact pertains to Adam Silver, the truth is simple. The employee doesn’t fire the employer. The millionaire doesn’t ashcan the billionaire. Most of all, doing the right thing takes a whole lot more muscle than that of a cadaverous functionary stammering an unsatisfactory answer to a baffled inquisitor.
Even LeBron James weighed in, as he is wont to do, stating the painful and obvious:
As did Chris Paul:
Sarver is blight on blight with a side of blight, and his expulsion on the grounds of human decency would be a grand idea, but the problem here is not Silver’s choice of words. It is the words he didn’t say, which are these: I can’t get rid of Sarver, period. I can’t get rid of any owner. The other 29 owners can. And so can the 450 players they employ. I’m just the poor semi-fictional bastard who has to explain it to you. You want someone to walk the walk, Howard? Go annoy them.
The suspension is a joke, as explained elsewhere in these august pixels. The fine is allegedly 1.17 percent of his net worth, if these folks got their math right, and frankly, this figure seems low. But let’s be clear here—in the madcap world of enormous wealth, a sense of shame is not only merely optional, but actually has the same importance as an appendix or a vestigial tail.
This is the part where you trot out the Donald Sterling case of 2014 and say, But Silver got rid of him, right? And you would be … well, is dead wrong the best way to put it?
Sterling was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and a clumsy, oafish, and deeply revolting laundry hamper of a man he surely was. But he was never kicked out of the club; what he was forced to do was turn his ownership of the team over to his then-wife Shelly, who in turn sold the Clippers to Shoutin’ Stevie Ballmer for two bills cash. The transaction took light speed as these things go, and Silver was credited for his statesmanship for making it all happen, which was a profound fiction.
Who made it happen was a group of the other owners, who saw not only that he was a pig in an open-collared shirt, but that he was about to cost them all money. He was exposed during the Clippers-Warriors playoff series in 2014 for the kind of piquant racism in which Sarver has gleefully trafficked, and two things immediately happened. Sponsors started withdrawing their names and accompanying money both on the local and national level, and the Clippers’ players, with nominal support from those of the Warriors, threatened to walk off the job, which would have cost more money. No game means the networks, who fuel the entire enterprise, would be stiffed, and you know where that leads.
Thus armed with the courage that comes from losing cash, a group of owners, believed at the time though never confirmed to have been either led or guided by San Antonio’s Peter Holt, called a number of other owners and said, This guy’s killin’ us, and drove Sterling to turn the team over to his wife, who in turn sold it to Ballmer. None of this was covered in the league constitution, but as we have come to learn, the rules are actually sidewalk chalk, easily erasable when you want to do something to something nobody can stop you from doing.
And Silver? He did the press conference, and because we think press conferences have actual validity rather than the performative gibberish they are, he was credited with extraordinary statesmanship when in fact all he really did was say what he was told to say by people who pay him to say them. He got to be the hero.
Now, for the same reason, he gets to play the villain, and Sarver gets to float with a mosquito bite on the knuckle of his middle finger because while he is a worse version of Sterling, only without the overt infidelities with a woman famous for making a beekeeper’s helmet a fashion statement, his repellent behavior has not yet reflected itself in any other owner’s pay packet. No sponsors have pulled out of anything, and the players, including James, have not, as far as we know, prepped for a walkout—of which at least one and probably both would have to happen for Sarver to be introduced to the door, and only after he sold the Suns, who are currently valued at $1.8 billion, or four-and-a-half times what Sarver paid to buy them in 2004. In short, they have to make it worth his while to be embarrassed.
That’s who Silver was playing the feckless waif for Wednesday—not just Sarver, but the 29 owners who have not mustered the gumption to move Sarver into a sell-now mood, and the players who have not yet taken empowerment to this frightening (to management) and admirable (to all other human beings everywhere) level. This isn’t about statesmanship behind the same podium with which Silver emcees the annual player auctions. This is about the brute force required to force Sarver to accept a deal he can’t refuse. Like we said, it’s not a rule; it would be a suggestion with chainsaw accompaniment as presented by those who work for Sarver and those who partner with him. Even at that, they would be forcing him to make multiple times his original investment, the kind of punishment that Silver won’t be explaining to a stupefied Beck and trying to pass it off as restorative justice.
So there’s where your expectations should be aimed. You might be inclined to entreat Suns season-ticket holders to boycott the team, but we suspect the annual windfall of being a team owner would allow Sarver to make a tidy profit even if nobody came to any game again ever. And being viewed by the world as an utter bastard hasn’t actually moved Sarver to so far modify his behavior, so shame is an inadequate motivator. This requires muscle, applied en masse from both the labor and management wings of Big Basketball, and it starts with a phone call from one owner to another, unless it starts with a phone call from one player to another. That will be the answer Howard Beck seeks.