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How NBA players got an infamous team-owner to sell

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many basketball fans were surprised when billionaire Robert Sarver announced he will sell his share of both the NBA's Phoenix Suns and the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. Sarver's announcement came yesterday after an NBA investigation concluded that Sarver had used racist and misogynistic language. The investigation also found he inappropriately touched male employees. Well, Jay Williams is a former NBA player and host of NPR's podcast The Limits. Hiya, Jay.

JAY WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I'm all right. Thank you. I want to know more about this investigation we said the NBA commission did, a little bit more detail about what exactly they found.

WILLIAMS: Yes. So there were reports of Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury, their WNBA team - reports of misogyny, of racist terminology that's been used multiple time and also inappropriate pictures that were sent to employees of the Phoenix Suns organization.

KELLY: And this was a report that took them a year or so, right? This was not a quick investigation.

WILLIAMS: Yes. This report was constructed on November 21 of 2021, and it was finally reported after a year of an investigation.

KELLY: OK. And I'm trying to figure out why this latest twist - because last week, the NBA announced they were going to fine Sarver a big one - $10 million. He seemed to accept that. Why doesn't the story end there? Why is he now deciding to sell?

WILLIAMS: Multiple players' reactions were, this is not enough. So when you have Draymond Green, when you have LeBron James, when you have Chris Paul, who plays currently for the Phoenix Suns, openly speak out to the public about this not being acceptable, I think that pressure from the players pushed some buttons internally for Robert Sarver to ultimately come to the conclusion of selling both his NBA franchise, the Phoenix Suns, and his WNBA franchise, the Phoenix Mercury.

KELLY: What else do we need to know about Robert Sarver? This is not his first run with controversy.

WILLIAMS: Well, Robert Sarver has used the N-word around multiple people, including my old agent. I think it's not only the terminology that he's used, Mary Louise. It's the inappropriate behavior from somebody in a position of power. I think ultimately, why we came to this conclusion of him selling both stakes in his franchises, the WNBA and the NBA - you have to consider everything that the NBA has been through over the last couple of years - George Floyd, the pandemic, how the WNBA stood, locked arms with the NBA around a lot of this. So when this story broke, ultimately I was proud to be an NBA player. I was not proud at first after hearing Adam Silver say it was only going to translate to a $10 million fine and a year's suspension because in my mind...

KELLY: Adam Silver, we should say, is the NBA commissioner. Go on.

WILLIAMS: Yes. Adam Silver is the NBA commissioner. The way he had handled it originally - I thought it had to be better. And to me, frankly, Mary Louise, the NBA is everything that the NFL is not. So a person in a position of power - Daniel Snyder, who is the owner of the Washington Commanders - multiple reports that came out about that work environment, the misogyny that has existed. And multiple other owners voiced their opinion, but that did not lead to him having his team removed. The NFL just powered on, whereas the NBA - it's led ultimately to this point.

KELLY: What kind of reaction are you hearing to this from fans, from players?

WILLIAMS: I'm hearing from a lot of fans and players about a sense of appreciation and - LeBron James even the other day tweeting out, thank you to the NBA for being the league I've always known you to be. So when you hear gratitude like that from the best player in the world and that's being also resonated by other players throughout the course of the league, current and former players, I think the NBA now has finally got it right. But I did not think they got it right at first.

KELLY: Jay Williams. He hosts the NPR podcast The Limits. Thank you, Jay.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Williams
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Enrique Rivera
Kathryn Fox