by John Walters

Should I weigh in (don’t do it!)? But I want to weigh in (you’ll get canceled!). I’ve already been canceled; how much worse can this be (you’ll regret it!)? I know, but…

Earlier this afternoon I saw two tweets related to Robert Sarver, the Phoenix Suns owner who was fined $10 million and suspended for a year for behaving like a combination of Herb Tarlek and Louie DePalma. The first tweet, from a writer for The Athletic, expressed shock and disappointment that NBA commissioner Adam Silver said out loud what anyone who’s ever worked at a real company already knew: the boss or owner has a greater latitude to get away with stuff than the employees. The second tweet—it may have been from the same scribe, not sure—expressed disappointment that Sarver was only being fined $10 million because to that writer, that would be like the cost of a large iced tea.

So, if you’re keeping score, writer is upset that Sarver is treated differently because he’s wealthy, then writer is upset that Sarver is not treated differently because he’s wealthy. Anyone else see a disconnect here?

I’m no fan of Robert Sarver. Wasn’t a fan of his before Baxter Holmes’ story appeared last autumn and was certainly no fan after. If you live in Phoenix or grew up here and have friends who travel in the Scottsdale/Paradise Valley inner circle, you already know that Sarver is a blowhard real-estate mogul who bought the Suns to satisfy his insatiable ego. Like most Phoenix Suns fans, I’m hardly sorry to see him go and hope that he vanishes forever.

However, I’m also no fan of the handkerchief-wringing, back-of-the-palm-to-forehead “I do declare!” reaction to the revelations about the behavior of a boorish boss. Let’s take this from the top:

1. Last October Baxter Holmes wrote a thorough story about Sarver and the Phoenix Suns’ dysfunctional front office for As I read it, I kept waiting for the big bomb to drop. In my opinion, it never did. Did Sarver go Weinstein on his female employees? No. Was there a familiar pattern of people being passed up for promotions or jobs based on their skin color, gender, sexual preferences or religion? As far as I can recall, no. Was Sarver a fatuous ass given to inappropriate comments and grab-ass frat boy stunts that came straight out of The Office? Yes.

2. Sarver and the Suns (under his direction) handled this awfully, of course, by attacking Holmes’ credibility and doing the usual song-and-dance of “innuendo, lies and bitter ex-employees.” Bad move there, Robert.

3. Commissioner Silver, who was probably well aware of all of this before last fall’s quasi-bombshell (Sarver had been owner of the Suns for 17 years by now and if you don’t think NBA staffers talk amongst each other and that some of this filters back to the league offices on Madison Ave., you’re nutso), veered directly into CYA mode. Even though Holmes’ piece had handed the Sarver bad behavior on an Adam Silver platter, the league went out and hired a law firm (the first rule is: lawyers get paid) who then spent 10 months and likely $3-4 million of the league’s money and then basically issued a report that said, “Yep, Baxter’s story checks out.” Wow, guys. Only college football coaching search firms are a bigger scam.

4. Silver brings down the hammer—one year’s suspension, $10 million—and the masses are able to tar and feather a rich white guy who was never all that likable in the first place as a “racist” and a “misogynist.” And they feel comfortable saying that such an environment is not a “safe” place to work simply because the boss and owner has no filter. Is he a racist? I don’t know (and neither do you). But in a social media world of “How many likes will this receive?” it’s always better to simply go along with the aggrieved masses than to, I don’t know, make a valid point.


As I understand it, and correct me if I’m wrong, the most recent incidence of Sarver pronouncing the N-word in full was in 2017—five years ago— and in all five cases they found, he was using it while “recounting the statements of others.” In other words, something like, “Hey, Coach Watson, how come Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight casually address one another as n***** but I cannot?” If I hear that, I don’t think of Sarver as racist. I think of him as someone who has yet to learn that there’s no circumstance in which a white male is allowed to use that term. Yes, it’s a double standard and yes, to me, it seems like a perfectly logical question to ask, especially for a man from his generation, but the difference between Sarver and I is that we’ve had very different paths in life and I’ve learned that there’s just no time you should ever utter the word. The moment you begin to ask why the double standard exists you’ll be accused of “mansplaining.”

You are either a person who lives according to principles or one who accedes to the cult of personality. The principle-ist in me does not believe in double standards (and yes, I realize that my African-American brethren use the word as a means of stripping it of its power) and certainly not circumstantial ones. If you beat the drum for equality for all but also “not equality for you in some cases,” then you do not live by a guiding principle (see the example at the top of this story).

Based only on this evidence (and that’s all that was presented), I would not go so far as to call Sarver racist. Rather, it just seems he never received the memo as to the racial sensitivity mores of the present. One thing I’ve learned from teaching at the college level, particularly grad students, is that young people of this era are particularly implacable when it comes to the older generation not adjusting to their terminology. It’s not about whether you are a racist or a misogynist, it’s whether you sound like one (the Archie Bunker Syndrome). I recall last spring one of my favorite former students, who is the grand daughter of former NFL quarterback Craig Morton, arranged for him to speak to our class. This is a man who started at quarterback in two Super Bowls, who played 17 seasons in the NFL and coached a few years in the USFL. I found it incredibly gracious of Mr. Morton, 79 years of age, to give so much time to our class (via Zoom) and thought that here is someone who has worked alongside men of different colors and backgrounds and seemed extremely well-adjusted.

At some point, late in the conversation, Mr. Morton used a term to describe an ethnic group (I believe) that was at best dated. He certainly did not use the N-word, but he used a word that would’ve been perfectly acceptable in his day but not so much now among Gen Z. I noticed a few of my students making eye contact with one another, sharing knowing smiles. See, the old white guy’s a racist. At that moment I felt sorry for my students; for their judgmental, know-it-all-ness. For their utter lack of empathy for a man, nearly 80 years old, who obviously intended no harm and just hadn’t received the latest update from Urban Dictionary and Twitter as to what’s acceptable. I thought, They’re more interested in sounding decent than being decent. I don’t know if my former student, Morton’s granddaughter, noticed their sidelong glances. I hoped she did not.


As for Sarver’s misogyny, may I introduce you to Robert Kraft? Jerry Jones? Just about every NFL or NBA owner in existence? Does that make it right? No, but what is the ultimate aim here? One of my former students reached out to me yesterday, upset that I wasn’t in lockstep with most of the media in denouncing Sarver, and asked if I’d feel safe working in such an environment? Safe?!? Because my boss is a male chauvinist? I have to wonder, who is watching those episodes of The Office that run non-stop, I mean like seven hours per night, on one of the cable networks? I mean, someone must be tuning in, and someone must find it funny and relatable because, taken to an extreme degree, it mirrors his or her own cubicle workplace.

No, it’s not cool that Sarver complained about female workers out on maternity leave (but they were out on maternity leave, no? He didn’t stop them). No, it’s not cool that Sarver made a comment about a female employee’s breasts. Not cool at all. You know what’s really not cool? A boss having an affair with a female employee that winds up derailing her career when at last you decide to run back to your wife (I witnessed this first hand in my own career and I’ve seen that scenario play out multiple times, and those men suffered no consequences).

Over the past day I’ve thought back to the work place sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s that I grew up watching: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Taxi, Alice, Cheers and WKRP in Cincinnati. Each of these shows had the requisite male chauvinist pig (Ted Baxter, Frank Burns, Louie, Mel, Sam and Herb Tarlek) to varying degrees. They had strong female characters. They had male characters who today would be considered “woke” (Murray, Hawkeye, Alex, Andy Travis). They had, it should be noted, almost no black characters. But as I thought back about these programs that I watched during my formative years (and about All In The Family), I was reminded that the community of the work place regulated itself. If Herb acted too much like an ass—and he almost always did—he felt the scorn not of Twitter but of the people with whom he worked. Same went for Louie.

The important thing is that people were allowed to be themselves and say what they wanted, and that if they veered too far outside of what was acceptable, they felt the wrath of their co-workers. But no one ever thought it was a good idea to send Louie to sensitivity training. When Mel made an insensitive comment to Flo, she didn’t run to HR. She clapped back, “Kiss my grits!’ and they moved on.

I don’t defend any of the things that Robert Sarver said or did. I do worry about who decides what is out of line, how much thinner the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable behavior become, and how quick we are to label people (especially if we don’t like them). I worry about the idea that nobody is allowed to be offended any more, that that is more sacrosanct than candor or truth. And I especially worry about the cult of personality: the idea that it’s okay to crucify people we don’t like while we protect those we do like for committing the same or even worse sins.

When people say that we need diversity in the workplace, I agree. But we also thrive on diversity of opinions, experiences, viewpoints. Which does not mean your workplace is better for having a Robert Sarver; it’s not. But it’s also not better if everyone is Alex Reigert or that milquetoast middle manager who never has the guts to take a stand. I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs (journalism, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels) in the past 30 years and all I want from a boss is someone who’s a straight shooter, whom I can trust, and who doesn’t hold anyone more accountable than he holds himself or herself. And finally, who can take as well as he or she gives.

Robert Sarver is an ass. But the only reason he has been served up for crucifixion is because Baxter Holmes forced the NBA to deal with an issue it was already well aware of and the NBA also knew that nobody likes Robert Sarver.

Finally, I wrote this quickly and without reviewing. I’ll suffer the consequences if you want to roast me for this take.


  1. The story of the former football player struck a chord. Years ago, shortly after I was married, an elderly, female relative sent me a card addressed to “Mrs. Mark S.” I did not go by that, did not like it or what it stood for, had a minor in Women’s Studies, etc., etc., and would normally (politely) correct anyone else who called me that (never happened, though). But in this case, I shrugged it off. She was, after all, around ninety-five years old, and probably did it 1) Because she was from an era when being called that for the first time felt heart-warming and romantic, or 2) Didn’t think anything about it at all.

    That said, I was in my early thirties at the time. College students tend to roll their eyes at the elderly no matter *what* they do.

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