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Saturday Sports: NBA owner faces workplace misconduct allegations; Federer to retire

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And I wait all week to say, it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Another NBA owner under scrutiny; minor league baseball players become union members; and Roger Federer calls it a career. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I want to begin with Robert Sarver, who owns the NBA's Phoenix Suns and the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. He got a one-year suspension and $10 million fine this week after an investigation by the league concluded he had committed workplace abuse and repeatedly, repeatedly used racial slurs. Can the league force him to give up the team?

GOLDMAN: Well, Scott, there is precedent. Eight years ago, the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver banned for life LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and essentially forced him to sell the team after Sterling's racist comments came to light. This week, Silver said the situations involving Sterling and Sarver are dramatically different. Silver said Sterling exhibited blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people. He said Sarver's language and behavior was indefensible, but it was not as blatant. And Silver noted two things. Removing a team from an owner's control is a very involved process, and the investigation report said Sarver's conduct was not motivated by racial or gender-based animus.

SIMON: But if you read the report, what he said was reprehensible.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, Sarver - several times, he used a slur for Black people when he was recounting how others used that slur, and he kept using it after being told he shouldn't. He made crude, sexist jokes. He yelled and swore to employees. And the fact that he's retaining ownership for now has prompted critics to say - and nothing new here, Scott - being a rich man allows you to play by a different set of rules.

SIMON: And what about reaction around the league?

GOLDMAN: Anger that the punishment didn't go farther. Players like LeBron James, Chris Paul - a player on Sarver's Suns - spoke out. A minority owner of the Suns called for Sarver to give up the team. And at least one major sponsor says it won't continue its relationship with the Suns if Sarver does. The NBA's considered the progressive major sports league. But this is a challenge to that image, especially with the growing criticism.

SIMON: Huge news this week - minor league ballplayers now have - you know, they've said union, union. And this didn't seem to be a possibility until fairly recently, did it?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. You know, but in the last few years, thanks to minor league advocacy groups, media coverage, pressure on MLB, including from Congress, minor leaguers have made gains. And now that historic moment - a union under the umbrella of the powerful Major League Players Association. Minor leaguers will collectively bargain with MLB - hopefully this off-season - for much of what they've been denied for decades, mainly better pay and better living and working conditions.

SIMON: Roger Federer announced his retirement is impending. He'll play his final event next week in London. Greatest of all time?

GOLDMAN: Well, it depends on if you're a Federer person, a Rafael Nadal person or a Novak Djokovic person, the three modern players competing for GOAT status. Federer's 20 Grand Slam singles titles won't be the most all time. Right now, that's Nadal with 22. But Federer will get a lot of GOAT votes as the most beautiful men's player ever. He's been called Baryshnikov in sneakers, much the way you've been called...

SIMON: Sneakers that he endorses for...

GOLDMAN: True...

SIMON: ...Many figures. Yes.

GOLDMAN: Much the way you've been called Baryshnikov behind the microphone. But we will certainly miss him.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.