Will star players continue to push and force the NBA to take a tougher stance with the Surfer Suns?

Empowering the player has come to define the modern NBA.

It’s a catch-all phrase that can mean a lot of things – everything from superior team building to load management – but it boils down to a simple concept: the growing awareness among the top players that the league, teams, and the multi-billion-dollar industry depend entirely on the stars for their full value.

But star power has its limits, which is always important to remember. We see it when the owner, for example, is credibly accused of being sexist, misogynistic, abusive and – at the very least – racially insensitive, and largely gets rid of it.

There is a difference between player empowerment and players in power.

Because if the players are in power, Robert Sarver, majority owner of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, may be in the process of forcing them to sell his NBA and WNBA franchises and severing his relationship with the leagues forever.

Instead, after an investigation commissioned by the league was validated and expanded on a very detailed basis ESPN’s story By Baxter Holmes On inappropriate behavior going back decades, Sarver will only have to pay a fine, a year’s suspension, and receive some sensitivity training.

As the details sink in, and after a somewhat clumsy defense of the report and subsequent punishment by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, what has emerged is a reminder of where the real power lies in a league that has long prided itself on being seen as doing the right thing.

And imagine what?

It falls to the largely anonymous billionaires who own the teams and can operate largely without much scrutiny or serious consequences, even after they’ve been tough on pregnant female employees or fired a black coach — current Toronto Raptors aide Earl Watson — for refusing to sever ties. With his black agent or using the N word on multiple occasions.

Silver — who works, after all, on behalf of the 30 franchisees — laid out the league’s true power dynamics clearly after being asked if there is a double standard in the NBA when it comes to how owners behave.

“There are special rights here for someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to someone who is an employee,” Silver said.

More evidence that behaving like a bully, sexist, and racially insensitive idiot — someone who feels comfortable making jokes about players’ sexual habits or asking them if they’ve shaved their genitals, as examples — carries with it a somewhat symbolic punishment on Thursday when it was reported that The NBA approved Sarver’s selection of minority shareholder Sam Garvin to serve as interim governor in his absence.

It should be noted that Garvin was one of the signatories of Sarver’s statement of support following the publication of the ESPN article in November 2021.

So, the message seems to be, if you’re one of the Suns employees who risked their careers by speaking out against their billionaire boss and finally saw the validity of your concerns, don’t celebrate too hard, someone is probably watching.

Watching all of this are also some of the league’s most notable players — Suns star guard Chris Paul, the former president of the NBA Players Association, and LeBron James, a living Lakers legend whose word carries weight, whether he uses the massive social media following to be heard or spoken to by the press.

Both James and Paul said what many have said: the sanctions against Sarver were not enough.

The question is why Silver wasn’t more serious with Sarver – a five-year ban, or even a lifetime ban. Let’s say – or suggest that the league might consider removing it?

There is precedent.

In 2014, barely months after his job as commissioner, TMZ discovered a recording of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling arguing with his then-girlfriend about seeing her with black men at Clippers games, among other hateful details.

Sterling at that point had twice settled lawsuits over discriminatory rental policies as a landlord, and Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor described him in another lawsuit as having a ‘farm mentality’. The NBA ceased operations on those occasions, but three days after the recordings appeared on TMZ, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and a process began to withdraw his franchise from him.

Why the rush? One reason was that the NBA playoffs were on the verge of warning and the league was facing the very real possibility of a player-led boycott in the absence of any quick action.

The league saw an opportunity to get rid of the problem owner in a major market that might have helped move things along as well. When Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer bought Clippers — a moribund franchise without a circuit — for a record $2 billion, every owner won the league.

That seemed like an added benefit at the time, but as things have evolved since then, it’s easier to consider how to resolve the Clippers’ situation as a case of chance at justice rather than taking the NBA to do the right thing.

There is no clear evidence as to whether what Sarver should be doing deserves to be stripped of his privilege – the process Silver is referring to is somewhat easier said than done. The investigation concluded that although the Suns owner said and did many stupid things and was an abusive boss who promoted a toxic workplace, “the investigation did not conclude that Mr. Sarver’s workplace misconduct was motivated by racial or gender hostility.”

Translation: Although he did things that could easily be interpreted as racist or misogynistic, he did not do them out of any ill intent towards women or racial minorities.

It’s a generous interpretation of the facts, at least, but it also indicates how little appetites Silver or his fellow self-censored owners are.

Sarver gets his team and at the start of the 2023-24 season, he will be able to resume his affiliation with the NBA and pretend to have nearly two decades of being an abusive idiot that never happened.

This is strength.

Whether an approved and funded NBA investigation will be the last word on Sarver’s fiasco may test the limits of where the league’s true strength lies.

Jahm Najafi is one of Sarver’s partners and the second largest shareholder in the franchise. Sarver called for his resignation In an open letter to Suns employees sent Thursday night:

“Similar conduct by any CEO, CEO, president, teacher, coach, or other leadership position warrants immediate termination … and the fact that Robert Sarver ‘owns’ the team does not give him license to treat others differently than any other leadership position.” …if we, as sports leaders, do not adhere to the same standards, how can we expect a functional society with integrity and respect at any level?”

Shortly before Najafi called for Sarver’s resignation, the mayor of Phoenix and some council members said they were also “appalled” by the behavior attributed to the majority owner in the NBA report, and would investigate any actions the municipality could take in their wake. .

On Friday morning, PayPal CEO and CEO Dan Schulman, whose company is the Suns shirt sponsor, said: “We will not renew our sponsorship if Robert Sarver remains involved with the Suns organization, after serving his suspension.”

Will momentum continue to build to topple Sarver? Will enough of the other 29 league owners be willing to speak up? Or could it be that they had concerns about the skeletons in their closets that would hold them back?

Will players – especially the strongest voices in the league – fall even harder?

What would happen if the likes of Paul and James led a boycott or sort of against the Suns?

It’s not fair for employees to take that kind of support to bring about change, but if there’s one thing people in power are aware of and respect, it’s influence.

Having chosen the league itself to walk a compromise between being seen as disciplined to one on its own while protecting the status quo in another way, perhaps the ultimate expression of player empowerment is what it takes to actually bring about seismic change.