PayPal has threatened to scrap its sponsorship of the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns if the team’s owner remains in control of the franchise after he was suspended for using racist and misogynistic language.
Robert Sarver, the team’s owner since 2004, used the N-word on multiple occasions and fostered a culture bullying and discrimination against female employees at the team, according to report released this week by law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
The NBA suspended Sarver for a year and issued a fine of $10mn, a punishment criticised as too lenient in recent days by basketball player LeBron James as well as other team and sports executives.
The league is under pressure to defend its penalty for Sarver, which is less severe than its decision in 2014 to force Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers for making racist comments.
PayPal is the first Suns sponsor to publicly challenge the league’s decision. On Friday, the payments company said it would not renew its contract with the franchise, which expires at the end of this season, if Sarver remains in charge after his suspension
“We have reviewed the report of the NBA league’s independent investigation into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and have found his conduct unacceptable and in conflict with our values”, said PayPal chief executive Dan Schulman in a statement.
The NBA did not respond to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver described his “disbelief” over Sarver’s conduct documented in the Wachtell report but said the league had “dealt with it in a fair manner”.
The independent investigation, undertaken after an explosive report by ESPN in November 2021, found that over the course of Sarver’s ownership, he used the N-word in the workplace at least five times
It also found he berated a female employee and discriminated against another who was pregnant, made jokes of a sexual nature, and in 2016 told a coach “I hate diversity”.
Silver said this week that the Sarver case differs from Sterling’s. “While there were these terrible things, there were also many, many people who had very positive things to say about [Sarver] through this process,” Silver said.
James, the league’s star player who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, tweeted this week that the NBA “definitely got this wrong”, adding: “I love this league and I deeply respect our leadership. But this isn’t right. There is no place for misogyny, sexism, and racism in any workplace. Don’t matter if you own the team or play for the team.”
Chris Paul, a prominent player for the Suns, also tweeted that “the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behaviour”.
Other executives, including Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi, have called for Sarver to resign.