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Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, who is white, has said the N-word on multiple occasions; made lewd, misogynistic comments in meetings; berated coaches and presided over a toxic work environment in which employees have been discouraged from going to the human resources office, according to a wide-ranging story by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published Thursday.
The story quotes a Suns co-owner saying, “The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale. It’s embarrassing as an owner.” A former team executive added, “There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me.”
The NBA announced an investigation into Sarver and the organization on Thursday.
“The allegations contained in today’s ESPN article are extremely serious, and we have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation,” league spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement. “The NBA and WNBA remain committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees. Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”
In the ESPN story, a current Suns employee on the business side is directly quoted on the possibility of an investigation: “If the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f— is going on in Phoenix, [he] would be appalled.”
Among the incidents throughout Sarver’s 17-year tenure reported by ESPN:
This is not an exhaustive list of the reported allegations. The story also includes several anecdotes of Sarver reacting inappropriately to Phoenix’s performance on the court. “He was constantly meddling and trying to coach himself or go into the coaches’ office and start drawing X’s and O’s on the board at halftime and tell them they need to do this, they need to do that,” a longtime former employee said. Sarver did not answer questions about his interactions with the team.
On Thursday afternoon, former Suns player Vince Carter said on ESPN that he wasn’t surprised by that aspect of the story, as he experienced something similar when he returned to Phoenix after his brief stint there. Carter said that, at halftime of a game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Suns in January of 2012, Sarver entered Phoenix’s locker room, where he instructed the players to “take me out” and “put me on the ground.”
Within the organization, there is support for an independent investigation into the Suns’ workplace culture, according to two current employees who spoke with ESPN. “A lot of people view this as their chance to right this ship,” one of them said. Both, however, said there is concern about potential retaliation.
The National Basketball Players Association released a statement that reads, “We are continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the [NBA’s] decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”
Weeks before the story’s publication, Sarver released a statement denying “any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender.” In the story he specifically denied saying the N-word to Watson, saying anything inappropriate in the Nash meeting, making the comment about getting strippers pregnant to lure free agents, saying the N-word when discussing hiring Hunter and talking about his sex life with employees.
Sarver said that his problem with Watson working for Klutch was about a “conflict of interest,” that he never told the pregnant employee that she couldn’t continue in her role and that he only gave the picture of his wife in a bikini to employees in charge of merchandise, as she was wearing a sample and he wanted to know if they wanted to sell the item in the team shop. On the Griffin incident, he said he doesn’t remember using “those exact words” but he did “make a joking reference to men’s grooming habits with Taylor Griffin once in the locker room. I remember that Taylor laughed at my comment.”
The white male executive who called his Black coworker “Carlton” denied being asked to stop doing so, said he never asked the coworker to dance and described their relationship as “jovial.” While three people said that the female employee’s desk had been moved following the alleged physical assault by a male coworker, the Suns denied telling anyone to move a desk and said that they couldn’t take any action because neither employee spoke to HR. The female employee said that she had indeed talked to HR.
Post-publication, Sarver issued another second statement denying the allegations, in which he says, “I would entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.” He also said that the N-word is “not part of my vocabulary,” that Watson is “not a credible source” and that ESPN’s reporting is “false” and “misleading.”
Watson, now an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors, issued a statement through his current employer. It reads, in part: “I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact. Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth.” Watson went on to say that “this has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and I am not willing to relive it every day.”
In addition to the Suns, Sarver owns the Phoenix Mercury and the Spanish soccer club Mallorca. Nash and former soccer player Stu Holden are also part of Mallorca’s ownership group.
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