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Out of bounds: 2022 NBA season hampered by allegations of workplace misconduct

November 1, 2022

The 2022 NBA regular season began on October 18 to much fanfare and excitement. The season opened with blockbuster matchups, including Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers taking on Steph Curry and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

But despite the fun and games happening on the basketball court, the NBA has been dealing with media coverage for misconduct happening behind the scenes. Since September of this year, three NBA teams have been in the news because of investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct.

Your company may not be so different than an NBA team

While the NBA has no shortage of glitz, glamour and spectacle, many companies are no stranger to the same workplace issues that have impacted the Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns in 2022.

The latest story about workplace misconduct in the NBA broke late last Thursday when it was reported that Detroit Pistons’ assistant general manager, Rob Murphy, was put on leave while being investigated for alleged misconduct with a former female employee. The Pistons’ organization is still yet to comment on the matter, and little information about the allegations or investigation is available at this time.

The investigation into Murphy’s alleged misconduct comes less than a month after Boston Celtics’ head coach, Ime Udoka, was suspended for the 2022-2023 season following a lengthy workplace investigation. reported that the investigation found that Udoka committed “multiple violations of team policies.” While few details were released to the public, it was revealed that Udoka used crude language with a female employee prior to having an “improper” relationship with her. Udoka’s language was found to be “especially concerning,” given his role as head coach and the power imbalance between he and the subordinate employee. 

Despite these troubling findings, the investigation also found that his misconduct did not signal a larger cultural problem within the organization. When asked to comment, Celtics’ owner Wyc Grousbeck stated:

“We go to great lengths … to run the organization with the central core value of respect and freedom in the workplace from harassment or any unwelcome attention.” […] This feels very much, to me, like one of a kind. That’s my personal belief. But I’ll have to verify that.”

It is no secret that there are often power imbalances found within companies and the workplace. While it is unfortunate to say, it is also not uncommon to hear about individuals who abuse their position and engage in misconduct with subordinates. While it can be difficult to detect such behaviours, employers can help themselves and their employees by creating an environment where employees feel safe and supported when bringing forward complaints. This can be done through implementing the necessary rules and policies, training, and where necessary, promptly investigating allegations of workplace misconduct.

While the investigation into Udoka’s misconduct did not find systemic issues within the Celtics, a much more problematic situation was found within the Phoenix Suns’ organization. 

The case of Robert Sarver and the Phoenix Suns/Mercury demonstrates how workplace issues become systemic

On September 13, 2022, the NBA released the findings of a workplace investigation centering upon Robert Sarver, managing partner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Following a lengthy investigation where 320 individuals were interviewed and more than 80,000 documents were reviewed, Sarver was found to have violated common workplace standards by engaging in misconduct that went against team and league rules and policies.

The investigation found that Sarver:

  • used racially insensitive language when communicating with employees;
  • treated female employees unequally by making comments about their sex and physical appearance;
  • inappropriately touched male employees; and
  • demeaned and bullied employees

Unlike Udoka and the Celtics, the investigation into Sarver and the Suns/Mercury found that other employees also engaged in workplace misconduct. It was determined that employees within Sarver’s organizations used racially insensitive language, mistreated female employees, made inappropriate comments about sex or sexual orientation, and made otherwise disrespectful comments.

The investigation also revealed inadequate organizational policies and rules and a historically ineffective human resources department that employees did not trust.

Based on the findings and report, the NBA:

  • suspended Sarver from involvement with the Suns/Mercury organizations for one year;
  • fined Sarver $10 million, the maximum fine under the NBA’s constitution and by-laws; and
  • required Sarver to participate in respect in the workplace training

The NBA also required the Suns/Mercury fulfill the following requirements as a means of improving the workplace:

  • retaining a third-party firm to assess and make recommendations concerning workplace training, policies and procedures;
  • conducting regular culture audits and developing specific action plans based on survey results;
  • reporting significant instances or allegations of misconduct to the NBA; and
  • following NBA directives related to improving the workplace.

What are the main takeaways for employers?

Employers need to understand that failing to address bad behaviour in the workplace will lead to bad outcomes, both in the short and long-term. Employers can help ensure that their organizations are safe by having the right policies in place to protect the well-being of all employees and ensuring that employees understand those policies. In fact, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Ontario employers are required to have harassment and violence in the workplace policies. Furthermore, employees need to trust that their concerns will be taken seriously and that something will actually be done if they bring forth allegations of workplace misconduct. Without such assurances, workplace issues like harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying will be allowed to run rampant. All employers need to protect their employees safety and well-being. Thus, while your company may seem quite different from a professional sports team with a global stage, the two are more similar than you might think.