I’d like to preface this post by stating I am in no way defending Robert Sarver. What happens in the NBA’s upcoming investigations of him, his franchise and the culture he created there will ultimately determine his fate. The Association has set a clear precedent about what sort of behavior it will accept from its ownership (see: Donald Sterling). If Sarver, majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, is not forced to step down, he’ll at a minimum receive a hearty slap on the wrist, plus the gratuitous public ridicule that accompanies it.
Here’s the latest on Sarver and why he’s come under fire. Allegations have surfaced of him showing Suns personnel pictures of his wife scantily clad as well as making some pretty racially charged statements. More details will most certainly emerge. I would like, however, to talk about one accusation in particular.
Former NBA great and recently retired dunkaholic Vince Carter has publicly stated that former players have told him that upon his return years ago to play against his former team, Robert Sarver entered the Suns locker room pre-game. Sarver’s instructions to his team at that time were to “put Carter on the ground” and “not let him have fun in his building.” Carter was told this from a former Suns assistant coach and friend of his, Corliss Williamson.
Upon hearing this news, I couldn’t help but think of former New Orleans Saints head coach Gregg Williams. Years ago, in what ultimately came to be known as Bounty-Gate, Gregg Williams was the NFL coach who took the fall for telling players to take people out. Someone in the locker room had recorded a pre-game speech of his. His most damning quote “the head can’t survive without the body” still resonates to this day.
From 2009 to 2011, New Orleans Saints defensive players were allegedly rewarded bounties for hits that would potentially debilitate opponents. Williams was suspended indefinitely while head coach Sean Payton was suspended for eight games. The NFL determined there was no room in the game for such behavior. The penalties loomed over the New Orleans franchise for years.
Football is a physical sport. The stronger the players get, the more we see go down with injury. There hasn’t been a single player, probably ever, that has escaped the game unscathed. A coach instructing his players to intentionally injure others is undoubtedly suspension-worthy. But where do we draw the line?
In a game where the objective is to hit another player as hard as you can, where emotions and adrenaline run high, where a player is taught since junior high school to bring another player down to the ground with all his might, how do we determine the difference between fair and foul play and intent to harm versus intent to tackle? It’s safe to say the lines are getting more and more blurred by the down.
While still physical, basketball isn’t nearly as brutal as football. Players like Vince Carter, albeit an anomaly, can play twenty years and still walk away from the sport. That being said, you can’t convince me that, upon hearing Sarver’s comments about roughing up Vince Carter, players from the 1980s didn’t laugh a little inside. Do you think that Larry Bird would be in any way offended if he’d heard that Jerry Buss or Pat Riley had told Kareem to foul him hard? I’d dare to wager Bird would be more offended if that conversation didn’t happen.
Clearly, Sarver’s comments about Carter were in poor taste but what owner, coach or team representative is going to walk into a locker room and tell his team to allow an opponent to do whatever he pleases. Wouldn’t that be worse?
Again, what comes out about Sarver will continue to draw criticism but I’m not appalled by a coach telling his players to play a guy tough. I’d rather that than end up with a box of participation trophies. If you think Sarver’s the only sports figure to ever tell his team to play physical, I have a team in Phoenix to sell you. Half the NBA doesn’t play defense anyway so what does it matter? The league has gone through leaps and bounds to ensure overtly physical play is kept to a minimum. Players are suspended or ejected at the mere glimpse of anything considered intentional.
I get that we are in a kinder and gentler time. Ownership should have its ethical limits. But I’ll be damned if I’d want to play for an owner who told me politely to have a good game. Give me the guy with an edge any day of the week. Sarver didn’t become a millionaire being a nice guy. Don’t expect an attaboy when an opponent drops forty.
Again, if Sarver has created a culture of hate and an unhealthy environment for other reasons, then let the chips fall as they may. I’m just not sure him telling his team to take a player out falls under one of those cardinal sins.