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Disgraced NBA team governor Robert Sarver blames everyone but himself

Disgraced NBA team governor Robert Sarver blames everyone but himself

In a released statement, Phoenix Suns and Mercury governor Robert Sarver announced that he will be reluctantly selling his portion of the franchise. Simultaneously, he made sure to make the point clear that this was against his wishes, and that he didn’t believe any of this was fair to him. 

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a real punishment. Sarver is cashing out, and stands to make around $2 billion when he sells the franchise. But that doesn’t appear to be the point for him. No, instead, Sarver has somehow transformed himself into the victim in the situation.

Recently, AndScape senior writer (and frequent guest on ESPN's Around The Horn) David Dennis Jr. joined my show with Dave Zirin, "The Collision: Where Sports And Politics Collide."

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We asked Dennis to discuss Sarver’s unapologetic departure and his possible plans in the near future.

Etan Thomas: David, I want to read a tweet of yours. I want you just to go a little bit more in-depth. In this tweet, I saw the segment on Around the Horn and I thought it was great; that's the reason I reached out to you. But your tweet said, "Pardon my cynicism here, but Sarver already seems to be planning out his cancel culture tour that is going to make him richer than he was before. And we've seen all of this before." Go into a little more detail about what you meant.

David Dennis Jr.: "Yeah. So, he took an excruciatingly long, what, five days to decide to give up the team? And Sarver has already greased the wheels to start his cancel culture tour, which we've seen so many celebrities do after they're called out for racism, misogyny, sexual misconduct, etc. Instead of owning up to it, they say, 'Well, I was canceled by this woke mob.' Basically, code language that says, 'These Black folks, these women, etc. are out of control and they cost me my career,' and they go on a Fox News tour pushing that false narrative. And Sarver's comments that he made about why he's selling the team were all about that. It was about the fact that he wasn't given a chance to do right, it was the fact that he was basically saying cancel culture without saying that phrase.

"And this is a pathway that so many other people have taken that he now seems ready to take himself. He can write a book about how he was wronged by these NBA players. He can go on Fox News and the Newsmaxes of the world as a business consultant and talk about this. He can go on a worldwide tour, basically talking about how he was the affronted person, because of the fact that he was not allowed to clear himself of all of the racism and misogyny that he was accused of. And we've seen this so many times, and there's so much money to be made in it. Now, as far as the penalty? There’s really no penalty for being a terrible person. I mean, he's already going to sell the team for $2 billion, and he has a financial forward-thinking thing that he's already looking forward to."

Dave Zirin: What were your thoughts, David, about the way that Adam Silver handled all of this? Initially, Silver was widely criticized for how he handled this. And then, a school of thought has emerged that said, "Maybe Silver played it correctly because he allowed public opinion to push Sarver out." I frankly wonder if that gives Silver too much credit, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

Dennis: "Yeah. I mean, there's one thing that this country loves to do — it loves to give white men the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to racial reckoning, right? There's always some idea that there is some great master plan. I don't see the master plan. I see a guy who was being paid by the owners to speak out on behalf of the owners, and that's what he did. The other 30 white-men billionaires did not see enough of a problem with what Sarver did to kick him out of the league. Adam Silver got that memo, and he went out there and was the voice box for those people. If the NBA really felt like Sarver did something or felt like they could say something strong about Sarver, the statement that they put out, the investigation would not have said that there is no racial or sexist animus in his actions of saying the N-word or insulting women.

"It was, 'Here's the information, but also, we're going to defend him at the same time.' Adam Silver, probably deep down in his hope of hopes, thought that this wasn't going to happen so that he would get let off the hook and that the NBA would look good in the long run. But the problem with that is he ends up putting the onus on Black folks, Black players, Black fans to protest. But whatever happened to white folks just going out and doing what's right just because it's the right thing to do? Which, we did not see from the other owners."

Etan: It's interesting. We had Sports Illustrated writer Howard Beck on last week, and he made some good points. I asked him the difference between this situation and the Donald Sterling situation, and why they were handled differently. I thought a precedent had been set and this one didn't follow that. But he made some good points. He said some of the differences being No. 1, there was no smoking gun, no actual audio of Sarver saying this that could be repeatedly played throughout the media. The timing of everything, there wasn't the player uproar or the national media uproar, like there was with Sterling.

And he talked about even the press conference, the amount of media that was there, it paled in comparison to that of Sterling. Do you think those are all relevant factors as to why Adam Silver and the governors were reluctant to give Sarver the Sterling treatment? Or do you think those are irrelevant factors?

Dennis: "I do think that those are factors. I think, here's the biggest factor, is that [the] Donald Sterling [incident] happened in what, 2013, 2014? And since then, these white billionaires have learned that if you are in fact caught on tape saying terrible things about people, you can still become the President of the United States. And so, you've learned that there are more people who actually side with you for these things than they thought before. There was a time when Donald Sterling did this that people thought, 'Oh, this is going to be universally panned as wrong.'

"But now, we live in a society where people believe what Robert Sarver did was not wrong, and he has more backers than they originally thought. And billionaires are more likely to stick to their guns because they see that we have a country in which racism and misogyny are more accepted than they once thought it was. If you could be on the Supreme Court or President of the United States or continue to own your companies, then why the hell do I even have to listen to a bunch of Black players, a bunch of Black fans who are just upset? I'm still the one with power. So, I think that is the biggest change. It's not the change in the players or the league. It's society as a whole, that is more accepting in this country of racism, and despite all the cancel culture stuff that they're talking about."

Zirin: But do you think, David, that there's also been a polarization? I mean, since Donald Sterling, obviously the great societal difference since then has been the growth and expansion through 2020 of the Black Lives Matter movement, the largest demonstrations in the history of the United States. I mean, it makes me wonder if the climate has also produced an environment where if we were coming up on the season, players would not have put up with this either. And I think that might have created a much greater conflict than what we're currently seeing.

Dennis: "Oh yeah. I mean, I agree in saying that there's racism, but I think that they feel like they have more backers behind what Sarver's doing than they once thought before. So, it is a different sort of environment. And players were going to be more vocal and do all those things, but there was also probably enough of what the owners believed that they can put up with than they probably could before. There's more of an appetite for being okay upsetting Black people, I think, than before. And then that's why we end up with this sort of head-on collision.

Etan: You referenced Robert Sarver's statement. I want to read a little bit of so people know exactly what we're talking about. Sarver said in his statement: 

Words that I deeply regret now overshadow nearly two decades of building organizations that brought people together and strengthened the Phoenix area through the unifying power of professional men's and women's basketball. As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness, I expected that the commissioner's one year suspension will provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I, and so many fans love.

But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that this is no longer possible, that whatever good I have done or could still do is outweighed by what I have said in the past and for those reasons, I am in the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury.

So, as you said, he doesn't sound very apologetic. He really sounded like he's going to not go away quietly, but we might see him on that Fox News, right-wing Tucker Carlson tour talking about how he was done wrong and unjustly forced to sell his team.

Dennis: "Yes, that's exactly what he is doing. And another thing, he said he wanted a year to atone for this. He had a year; the investigative report came out a year ago. So, these things were already out, and he had a year to fix this and make this right. And we don't even know if those are words he regrets because Robert Sarver's the only person who says that, when he said the N-word, he was repeating it from somebody else. So, we don't even know if he's telling the truth about the origin of why he was saying those words in the first place. Because I do find it hard to believe that he heard another Black person say, 'N-words in the back, white people in the front.' And he just decided to repeat that? So, he had all the time to atone and do all that stuff. This just feels like a defense that he's going to use as fuel for his... whatever campaign that he's going to run going forward."

Etan: But let me jump right in with that. Even with that, people leave out the part about Earl Watson telling him, "Wait a minute, you can't say that word. It means something different when you say it." And then, him ignoring, I guess, what Earl Watson said, or [thinking] "You’re beneath me, you can't tell me what I can't say. Why can't I say the N-word too? if Draymond Green could say it, why can't I say it?" So he kept saying the N-word over and over — the actual word.

And it's just interesting hearing a lot of people, who happen to be white, not understand how that's unacceptable in any way shape or form when you're specifically told that what you were saying is offensive. You know what I mean? I don't understand how so many people don't make that connection.

Dennis: "I think that connection is very clear. I just think they don't care. And that's exactly what Sarver said to Earl Watson. That he doesn't care. And I think that's going to be part of his next thing is why. Can't you see him doing an N-word documentary about why can't white people say this word and Black people can? This is a tale as old as time. Every time a white person gets called out for saying the N-word, we all ask the question of, 'Why can't white people say it?' And I just want to know, why do white people want to say it so badly? It just feels like if I'm in a conversation with somebody and they say, 'Hey, that's offensive,' a decent human being just says, 'Okay, my bad, I apologize.' That’s just how human interaction works. But this has literally tormented white folks for decades that they cannot say this one word.

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Zirin: It's really staggering. I mean, I have teenage children who understand why you don't say that word in any context. And yet, these supposedly "masters of the universe," emphasis on the word "masters" in their own mind, can't get it through their own heads about what is, or is not, offensive. And it's because as you said, they're leaning in that direction in the first place and they resent the fact they can't do what their great grandfathers were able to do, I think they say to themselves, "Why am I denied what previous generations of my white forefathers were able to do?" And that, in and of itself, offends them.

Dennis: "Yeah. I mean, and if we want to talk about a very long history, there's a long history of white men having trouble with the word 'no' when it comes to a lot of things. And part of becoming a white billionaire, quite frankly, is not taking no for an answer — no matter who it harms. And that comes to a head in these situations, and that’s exactly what we saw with Robert Sarver."

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