One problem with the NBA players’ agreement to work with team governors on voting rather than a concrete systemic reform in their communities is that to ownership and players, voting can mean very different things.
A new investigation by John Gonzalez at The Ringer draws into stark reality the discrepancy between the types of changes NBA players are advocating for when they take to the streets or the microphone and what NBA team governors support with their votes and donation dollars. As Gonzalez put it, “It’s hardly news that billionaires who own sports teams donate heavily to politicians and their political action committees, and it’s no surprise that the overwhelming amount of that money is earmarked for conservatives and their causes.”
Yet Gonzalez also cited a focus within the NBA on HR 7120, or the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives this summer with only three “yea” votes from Republican members and has not been put to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. None of Arizona’s Republican House reps voted yea on the bill, which would lower the criminal intent standard necessary to arrest and charge a police officer; limit qualified immunity as a defense for law enforcement; and authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to subpoena local police departments in federal investigations into “a pattern or practice of discrimination.”
While the bill passed the House on a bipartisan basis and is a simple structural reform that would punish those who abuse their position in law enforcement, the Senate has not so much as held a vote, even as organizations like the NBA advocate for its passage.
Meanwhile, Suns managing partner Robert Sarver donated at least $13,800 to Martha McSally’s two Senate campaigns in 2019, according to FEC filings. Sarver has also supported Republican political action committees like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and DefendArizona, which support the current Senate, which has delivered no action when it comes to criminal justice reform since Floyd’s death on May 25.
In an exclusive comment to Bright Side of the Sun, here’s how Sarver explained his support for McSally:
“Martha McSally has been a supporter of equal rights. Deciding on what candidate to support is not about one issue, it’s about many issues that impact our country and our state. Social justice is ONE issue along with job creation, education, and healthcare that are paramount to me.”
To be fair, Sarver has donated on both sides of the political spectrum, including large sums to U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. And in 2020, Sarver’s political action has waned. The FEC shows no political donations from Sarver this year.
This comes after Sarver admitted to the Arizona Republic that he has donated to Sal DiCiccio in his Phoenix City Council races, saying “There was a (campaign) donation made by me in October 2014, and others who worked for the Phoenix Suns. Obviously, we make donations to candidates who run for office.”
Sarver was responding to bizarre accusations of bribery, but the point remains: Sarver supported the election of a man who called NBA players who protested during the season restart “whiny bitches.”
Over the years, Sarver and the Suns have committed more than $30 million to marginalized communities through Suns Charities. Of course, the Suns will also try to re-enfranchise Phoenix-area voters this fall by turning the Madhouse on McDowell into a voting site. They have put money and energy into their community.
And the Suns have avoided specifically endorsing candidates even as they work to give Arizonans new opportunities to vote, but the Phoenix Mercury this season wore “Vote Warnock” t-shirts in their Bubble in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. And it has been made clear this year more than in any other that if common-sense police and criminal justice reform at the federal and local level is a priority, Democratic candidates have been far more active than Republicans. A Senate bill crafted by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (a Black man) and co-sponsored by McSally nearly passed this summer and received bipartisan support, but both McSally and Sinema publicly stated it needed more bipartisan collaboration to pass, and it has since been shelved as the election approaches and the Supreme Court and COVID-19 relief take center stage on the Hill.
In order for Sarver to support his employees across the Suns and Mercury, he doesn’t necessarily need to vote the same way they do. Certainly the Phoenix players and coaches have been free to speak their minds this year. But in a fight over the valuation of Black life in this country and how to fix a fractured policing system, conservatives have shown themselves to be on the opposite side of NBA players, occasionally attacking them outright.
Without team governors who are willing to come to players’ side on this issue, it will be hard for the NBA to make any type of progress making the communities they come from safer and more equitable. Thus far, Sarver is part of the overwhelming majority of NBA governors who have repeatedly sided with those who have voted against these improvements for Black Americans.