A utopia of action
Robert Sarver's suspension, Adam Silver's spin, and all the voices money talks in.
What’s the tone that money talks in? Loud, overpowering, or like an absence, a really and truly crushing quiet? What’s been said so far about Robert Sarver has gone both ways — loud, as in the volume of stories about the mistake the NBA is making not removing him, and crushing quiet, edged in awkward disbelief, at the way Adam Silver trotted out some bad answers and good reminders of who it is that he ultimately works for. Crushing quiet too, in the men, like Steve Kerr, who initially came out in support of Sarver when the 70+ allegations against him were made public.
Accountability, does it talk yet? In sports, in entertainment for consumption, we know it best through collective responses that come up in waves. A caterwaul, calls for something to be done when things like this become known. It’s not accountability in action, it’s the preface, but so often in situations like this it’s all we feel like we’ve got. The actual sound of accountability we haven’t heard yet — owning up to paired with appropriately meted discipline, followed by considered contrition and action to make amends, instead of accelerated atonement to get back to as-was — so we take silence, the removal of the issue (person, in most cases), as a good enough response.
Sarver should be removed. Not suspended and paid out for that season, potentially hoisting a championship trophy if the Suns find themselves in Finals contention again. But his removal (or not) doesn’t do anything to reverse the vacuum that sucked up so many voices of so many people who came forward with demeaning, dehumanizing stories all riddled with a skewered kind of violence both abrupt and meant to smother, to bury. I say violence because, while not necessarily aligned with the overt harm we’d typically define it by, I can’t really think of a more accurate way to describe the realization a person has, in a moment of being verbally or physically demeaned, of their brain scrambling out ahead of them to try and get a hold on all the ways this is going to make their lives a living hell.
What ought to come out of Sarver’s removal, if money does talk loud enough in PayPal, title sponsor of the Suns, and other brands following suit, giving an ultimatum — them or him — is a better definition of the kind of voice we expect from money.
The most apparent, and interesting part of this is that the league responds, as if by dog whistle, to revenue. Where it’s coming from and who can promise more of it. The downsides of entrusting so much of our time, brainpower, emotions and money into a corporate entity as ruling body like the NBA is we are owed nothing in return. It’s a big, open maw of power and basketball is the handy distraction. Like an anglerfish dangling something luminous to us in the dark in front of all those long, needled teeth.
In the crush of the pandemic NBA owners bowed to pressures of public demand. They went on paying arena workers who couldn’t work because the crowds were gone. During the Orlando Bubble, owners bowed to the pressure of their athletes in the roiling, palpable height of social justice protests and player strikes resulting in game stoppage. Owners set up voting stations within arenas; the Bucks, for a minute, had the Governor of Milwaukee at the table making big, sweeping promises about voter and police reform. We aren’t so naive as to think these things are possible normally, all the time, because they came out of horrific circumstances nobody wants to see repeated, but what both these screeching stops had in common was the money getting switched off, going silent.
Is it possible to approach something like the NBA, as a fan, like a stakeholder? It already gets too daunting to think about the kind of collective public action and sustained onus a change like that would take. It’s certainly more possible for sponsors, but it’s also not a ton of mental legwork to get to a point where even hypothetically, contractual agreements between the NBA and it’s title or promotional sponsors starts to include clauses that expressly lock in partnership terms beyond a single season, or layer in more protections for the league in what its partners can even weigh in on. The bottom line can always be drawn harder.
The tangle gets trickier when considering what athletes are, to the entity of the league.
Are they workers? Not really. The individuality of each athlete has been so hard-lined over time by the necessary strengthening of player autonomy, the optics of entertainment or individual as brand, the relative brevity of careers in the NBA that the league understands most of its players can’t sustain as an organized collective. It’s also not up to the players to make the league hold its owners accountable, or even to make sense of what accountable is or means when the parameters shift from person to person, like Donald Sterling vs. Sarver, or even in the span of a single 33 minute press conference like Silver’s earlier this week when he admitted owners aren’t workers, either.
There are particular rights here. Someone who owns an NBA team, as opposed to someone who is an employee. The equivalent of a $10-million fine and a one year suspension, I don’t know how to measure that against a job, but I have certain authority, by virtue of this organization, and that’s what I exercised. I don’t have the right to take away his team — I don’t want to rest on that legal point because there is a way to take away someone’s team in this league, it’s very involved and I had to make the decision that it didn’t rise to that level. But to me, the consequences are severe here for Mr. Sarver. Reputationally, it’s hard to make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in a somewhat of an anonymous fashion vs. what is a huge public issue now, around this person. So, there’s no neat answer here. Other than owning property, the rights that come with owning an NBA team, how that’s set up within our constitution, what it would take to move that team, you know, from his control, is. And it’s different than holding a job, it just is.
The utopia of action would be a mix of all three. Fans, sponsors, athletes, all with some measure of either outright or through revenue, speaking through it. But I’m also engaging in this thought exercise outside the bounds of capitalism, outside the idea of ownership as some penultimate show of economic superiority. Silver towed out a reference to the constitution when it came down to defining a team and all that team encompasses, as property, and the ownership rights to it. That’s as dark as it is telling in the history of how money in the United States was meant to protect, preserve and perform, that it can speak through 235 years still as a shorthand and ready shield is proof of one booming, brutal voice.
It’s a fantasy, I know, approaching the overhaul of power, action and accountability, as it would be shifting the terms of ownership in the NBA (removing any reference to property, for one), as something first collectively agreed on as a priority and then initiated. But natural human reaction so often places us at the opposite end of the thing we’re confronting. It’s difficult to understand, or guess at, how to believe in the NBA as an arbiter of even good faith in instances like these, when the cards get laid so embarrassingly, crudely exposed on the table. These were peoples lives and livelihoods, left for joke fodder and the bored, dangerous, gross menstruations of some callous billionaire. When you think of it — and really think of it, 70 people stepping up to share something that left them laid so low and so bare that many left not only the team, but the sport — think of all that lurks, unseen and unsaid, in the silence and the dark. Money talks but when you get that far, dredging these kinds of depths, who wants to listen?
BASKETBALL FEELINGS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.