Opinion: Was Draymond Green’s punch worse than Robert Sarver’s words? It’s a tough question but one we must consider when talking about their punishment.
Robert Sarver fined $10 million and suspended for the year following investigation
Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver has been fined and suspended after a league investigation which resulted in what they’re calling “workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies”.
Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
News cycles move so quickly now it’s hard to believe it was only three weeks ago that Golden State Warriors player Draymond Green was giving Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver a shove out the door.
Now it’s Green whose conduct and history are under scrutiny after he punched a teammate in the face.
That raises a provocative and important question: Is what Green did worse than what Sarver did?
Tough question: Are words the same as violence?
During a news conference and apology, Green actually made the point that physical violence, such as his punch delivered to the face of fellow Warrior Jordan Poole, is significantly worse than insulting someone with words.
“With word arguments, it requires two people … words have an effect, for sure, but they do not have the same effect as actions … when you have something that is action-packed, it is different than just some words.”
While some of what Sarver did could be called actions – such as pants-ing a male employee in front of other people, a humiliating practical joke – the bulk of his offenses were violations of speech, using words and thoughts offensive to African Americans and women.
In making the comparison of Sarver and Green, you can’t avoid the aspect of race. Sarver is a white man who offended Black people, and Black people are highly influential in a league whose players are 73% African American.
But I don’t ask the question because of race.
We’re quick to banish people for what they say
I ask because we live in a culture that eagerly wants to leap to the nuclear option – to banish people who violate lines of good conduct. And we live in a culture that increasingly argues that words can be the same thing as violence.
While there is no call to throw Green out of the NBA, there’s been much discussion that he should be traded. His continued presence on a team in which he slugged a teammate could destroy its chemistry, goes the argument. Also, some sports commentators point to Green’s history – as they did with Sarver’s – of misconduct over years that suggest his problems are perpetual.
What next?: Robert Sarver isn’t the only reason the Suns are in a sad state
To trade Green after he helped make the Golden State Warriors an NBA dynasty and its current world champions, would be a large blow to his career and reputation, a legacy changing event.
He would still be in the NBA, but to be shunned by the world champions that he anchored would be painful punishment.
Now Green could be exiled, much like Sarver
In a way, it’s equivalent to the exile Green and other stars meted out to Sarver.
Green was the third major NBA star to reject the NBA commissioner’s one-year suspension, $10 million fine for Sarver, leading to Sarver’s announcement that he would sell the team.
The league’s best players, increasingly the center of gravity in the NBA, were pressuring Sarver after a league investigation revealed that the Suns owner had used racially insensitive language and had mistreated women and other employees over his 18-year tenure.
Commissioner Adam Silver explained on Sept. 13 that much of Sarver’s misconduct happened many years ago and that the Suns franchise had evolved since then. Thus, NBA management chose not to permanently ban him from the league.
Green wanted a stiffer punishment for Sarver
But the game’s biggest stars, including Green, said the league’s punishment was too soft. Sarver needed to go, they said.
“To think that someone like Robert Sarver that’s acting in that manner can continue to represent us? That’s bull—-,” Green said on his podcast. “You can’t continue to represent way more people than yourself with those views, with speaking to people the way he did, with treating African Americans and women the way he has, that’s not OK.”
You could argue that Sarver’s social sins create a hostile environment for the entire Phoenix Suns franchise, but that is akin to the argument that Green should get traded because his continued presence creates a hostile environment for his teammates.
Former NBA player and now commentator Kenny Smith said Green’s punch is a nothing-burger. “That behavior is uncommon in normal society, without question, however, that behavior happens a lot in sports because of the physicality, the adrenaline, and all those things.”
But this is a bigger deal than that, and Kenny Smith knows it.
When a punch nearly killed an NBA player
The NBA has imposed serious penalties on fighting during games because it knows from its own history that a violent punch to the face can kill a person or ruin an NBA career.
On Dec. 9, 1977, a similar punch forever altered the career of Houston Rockets All-Star forward Rudy Tomjanovich, then 29. When Los Angeles Lakers power forward Kermit Washington saw Tomjanovich running toward him, he landed a near-fatal blow to Tomjanovich’s face.
“Tomjanovich, who crumpled to the floor, almost died that night of injuries that were akin to being thrown from a car going 50 miles per hour,” ABC News reported in a 2002 retrospect. “His skull was dislocated and spinal fluid was leaking from his brain. He recalled being able to taste the fluid in his mouth.”
His career was essentially over. He would retire in 1981, but he was never the same after the punch.
Smith is correct, however, that the competitive nature of sports amps up emotion and make athletes susceptible to spasms of violence. There have to be strong rules to control that, but that doesn’t diminish sports’ importance. Sports are an essential part of American life and a positive way to channel male aggression.
If you don’t believe that, read the life story of former Arizona State University football coach Todd Graham, who needed football as a young man to cope with life without his father.
This is not an argument for punishment
Mine is not an argument that Green should get the same punishment as Sarver. Mine is an appeal to use sparingly the nuclear option – the canceling of people because they violate popular norms.
No doubt there is some behavior that must never be tolerated, but most behavior falls into gray areas.
I think Commissioner Adam Silver was right to leave a door open for Robert Sarver to reform himself and atone for his misdeeds. Sarver was no doubt guilty of much bad behavior, but he also willingly turned over the keys to his franchise to two extraordinary men, who happen to be African American. Given that authority, they rebuilt the franchise to its former greatness.
He also built the Phoenix Mercury into a model franchise for women’s professional basketball at a time when most NBA owners with WNBA franchises were bailing out of their team and women’s sports.
Further, when Latino immigrants were under fire from a nasty immigration mood in Arizona and the United States, Sarver said to hell with the opinion polls and defended Latino immigrants.
Surely there is room for grace for a man who did all that.
It’s an argument to offer more grace
Likewise, the Golden State Warriors would be ingrates of the worst kind to trade Draymond Green.
People who follow basketball closely know that no other player has been as important to the success of the Warriors than he.
Green is a highly emotional and physical player who inspires his team to greatness. He is always playing on the edge of violent aggression and the Warriors have known this and benefited lavishly from it.
While other Warriors players, Steph Curry and formerly Kevin Durant, have gotten more credit for the team’s success, the best Warriors fans – the Bay Area fans – know that Green is the glue to Golden State.
Green is the guy in trenches doing the hardest, most unselfish work in basketball – playing defense. It isn’t sexy, but Green’s defense is transcendent. He changes games.
Take him out of the lineup, and other stars on his team begin to look mortal. Keep him in and his team wins championships.
Surely there is room for grace for a man who has done all that.
My point is that we’re better off creating a society that values forgiveness and atonement over one that demands banishment and retribution.
Because none of us is perfect.
And when we mess up, we’ll be grateful we live in the first.
Phil Boas is an editorial columnist with The Arizona Republic. He can be reached at 602-444-8292 or email@example.com.
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