NBA will investigate Suns owner Robert Sarver after reported allegations of racism, misogyny, workplace toxicity

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, who is white, said the N-word several times; made sensual, misogynistic comments in meetings; reprimanded coaches and presided over a toxic work environment in which employees were discouraged from going to the human resources office, according to an extensive story by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published Thursday.

The story quotes co-owner of Suns 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 racial point of view 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 law firm Wachtell Lipton to begin a comprehensive investigation,” league spokesman 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 about 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 dismayed. “

Among the events during Sarver’s 17-year tenure reported by ESPN:

  • Sarver repeatedly said the N-word in the coaches ’room after a loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2016, complaining that Draymond Green, who is Black, said it during the game. Then-coach Earl Watson told him, “You can’t f — ing say that.”
  • At least six Suns employees described Sarver saying the N-word out loud when it repeats something Black player said.
  • Telling a Suns employee that he wanted to hire Lindsey Hunter, who is Black, instead of Dan Majerle, who is white, as a coach in 2013, Sarver said, “These. [N-words] need a [N-word], “according to an executive who overheard the conversation.
  • Sarver made a racially insensitive comment during Steve Nash’s recruiting meeting in the summer of 2004. An executive in the room said, “We signed Steve Nash despite Robert.”
  • Since the Suns tried to sign LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, they knew he would like to play near his kids in Texas. Sarver said then that they had to get Phoenix area strippers pregnant with NBA playing kids so the team could have an advantage in recruiting. “A lot of things he says are getting a big reaction,” a former employee said. “And who’s going to tell him he can’t? He’s talking through threats. He likes that clumsiness. He likes people to know he’s in control. He wants control. He wants control of every situation and every person.”
  • While involved in a contract dispute with Eric Bledsoe’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, Sarver threatened to fire Watson if the coach, who was also represented by Klutch, failed to dismiss the agency. “It’s almost like property,” Watson said. “He wants people to call him and ask for him.”
  • During Watson’s first season, the coach was asked to suggest areas in which the organization could improve. When he said the Suns could use more diversity, Sarver responded, “I don’t like diversity,” according to Watson and a basketball operations employee, explaining that he believes diversity makes it difficult for people to agree on things.
  • A white executive called Black collaborator “Carlton” – a reference to the character of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – despite the collaborator telling him to repeatedly stop doing so, according to two former employees. The executive “jokingly” told his Black co-worker to “do the Carlton” dance.
  • Sarver made sensual comments in all-sessions, according to more than a dozen employees. Examples include talking about his wife performing oral sex on him and claiming he wears extra-large condoms. “Women have very little value,” said a woman who used to work for the team, describing how she felt when she was there. “Women are possessions. And I think we’re nowhere near where he thinks men are.”
  • In the team’s training camp, Sarver asked former Suns player Taylor Griffin, who lifted weights, whether or not he was shaving his legs. When Griffin answered in the affirmative, Sarver asked, “Do you shave your balls too?” That was during the 2009-10 season, and, according to a Suns employee, Sarver asked the same question to others over the next several years. Griffin said, “At the time, I took it as a joke. Looking back at it in today’s context, for a company leader or team owner to say such a thing is inappropriate.”
  • A woman who used to work for the Suns said that, after a male co-worker physically attacked her outside the office, all the organization did was move her desk back one row. “I couldn’t escape,” she said. “It was a joke. An absolute joke.” According to the employee, her attacker’s desk stayed less than 10 feet away.
  • A former human resources representative said, “I would say [to employees seeking help], ‘Let’s go for a walk. Because if they see you being here, they’ll come after you. ”Another former HR representative said it was“ a kind of culture of complicity. Of which I was a part. And I hate to say that. “
  • Sarver told a pregnant employee that she could not stay in her role coordinating the 2009 All-Star Game because she would be nursing and would have to be home. According to two Suns employees, other members of the management team had to intervene to reprimand the owner.

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 interfering and trying to train himself or go into the coaches’ office and start drawing X’s and O’s on the board for half a time and told them they had to do that, they had to do that, ”said longtime former employee. Sarver did not answer questions about his interactions with the team.

On Thursday afternoon, former Suns player Vince Carter told ESPN that he wasn’t surprised by that aspect of the story because 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 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 survey into the Suns’ workplace culture, according to two current employees who spoke with ESPN. “A lot of people look at this as their chance to adjust this ship,” one of them said. Both, however, said there is concern about possible retaliation.

The National Basketball Players Association issued a statement that says, “We continue to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the allegations. [NBA’s] decision to conduct a survey. We will postpone any further comments until that process is complete. “

Weeks before the story’s publication, Sarver published a statement denying “any and all suggestions that I used derogatory language related to race or sex.” In the story he specifically denied saying the N-word to Watson, saying anything inappropriate in the Nash meeting, making the comment about pregnant strippers to lure free agents, saying the N-word during a discussion about hiring Hunter and talking about his sex life with employees.

Sarver said his problem with Watson working for Klutch was a “conflict of interest,” that he never told the pregnant employee she couldn’t continue in her role and that he only gave the image of his wife in a bikini to employees. in charge of merchandise, as she was carrying a sample and he wanted to know if they wanted to sell the item in the team store. About the Griffin incident, he said he doesn’t remember using “those exact words” but he “made a joking reference to men’s caring habits with Taylor Griffin once in the locker room. I remember Taylor laughing at my comment.”

The white male executive, who called his black co-worker “Carlton” denied he had asked to stop doing so, said he had never asked the co-worker to dance and described their relationship as “joyful”. While three people said the female employee’s desk was moved after the alleged physical attack by a male co-worker, the Suns denied telling anyone to move a desk and said they could not take any action because no employee spoke to HR. The clerk said she did talk to HR.

Post-publication, Sarver issued another second statement denying the allegations, in which he says, “I would totally welcome an impartial NBA poll that can prove our only outlet to clear my name and the reputation of an organization of which I am so very proud.” He also said 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.”

In addition to the Suns, Sarver owns the Phoenix Mercury and the Spanish football club Mallorca. Nash and former footballer Stu Holden are also part of Mallorca’s holding team.

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