PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) -- ESPN has just gone public with its story about allegations of racism and misogyny by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. ESPN says it interviewed more than 70 current and former Suns employees.
"Employees recounted conduct they felt was inappropriate and misogynistic, including Sarver once passing around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees …," the article by Baxter Holmes says. "'The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,'" one Suns co-owner told ESPN. "'It's embarrassing as an owner.'" In ESPN’s report, Sarver denied or disputed most of the allegations through his legal team. The Suns also strongly denied the report in a lengthy statement released Thursday.
The article, 13 pages in length, is headlined by former head coach Earl Watson, who claims Sarver used the n-word multiple times in front of him. The ESPN report claimed he fostered a culture of misogyny with Sarver admitting to make a couple poor attempts at humor. Sarver bought the Suns in 2004. He purchased the Mercury at the same time.
Among the allegations: Former Suns coach Earl Watson said Sarver was upset that Golden State forward Draymond Green used the N-word during a game in 2016 and that the owner repeated the N-word several times when voicing his displeasure. Watson said he told Sarver that he can't use that word.
Watson was the Suns' coach for all or part of three seasons before being fired three games into the 2017-18 season.
Sarver said in his statement that Watson was “clearly not a credible source.”
The report also details a story about how Sarver passed around a picture of his wife in a Suns bikini to employees. The report says more than a dozen employees also said Sarver had a history of “making lewd comments in all-staff meetings."
The Suns hosted the Houston Rockets on Thursday night and Phoenix coach Monty Williams addressed the report before the game. Williams — who is Black — said he hadn't talked with Sarver since ESPN's story was published and that if he had heard the owner say any of the things that were alleged in the story “I wouldn't be in this seat.”
“My reaction is it's a lot to process,” Williams said. “There's so many things there and for me it's still not clear, as far as the facts are concerned. As someone who is the caretaker of the program, I find all of these things that are being said serious in nature. These allegations are sensitive — that's an understatement.”
Williams added that he would understand if any of his players didn’t want to play on Thursday because of the situation, but said none of them had expressed that sentiment to this point.
Suns guard Devin Booker — who is the team's longest-tenured player at seven years — was the only one on the current roster who played for Watson.
He said Watson was credible and added “that's my guy" but said he didn't know about the Watson-Sarver interaction until he read ESPN's story.
“I wasn't aware of the situation,” Booker said. “In my seven years I've been here, I haven't noticed that, but that doesn't make me insensitive to the subject. I think the NBA opened an investigation, they'll do their due diligence of bringing out facts instead of he said, she said. I'm sure the NBA has it in good hands and will do the proper research to find out the truth.”
The NBA Players Association said in a statement that it was "continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”
In ESPN's story, Bass said the NBA had not “received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”
Not just Sarver
Former employees reported that in one instance, a Suns executive had referred to a Black coworker as "Carlton," referring to the '90s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The employees claimed the coworker had asked the executive to stop after being asked several times to "do the Carlton" for him.
The ESPN report also says that employees, particularly women, had no choice but to lie on a team survey. Team members told ESPN that they feared retaliation or felt that the survey was worthless.
"It wrecked my life. I was contemplating suicide," a former Suns employee told ESPN. Another staff member reportedly said, "If something happens, don't go to HR."
Several ex-employees claimed that the Suns organization would often settle with anyone had considered legal action, or had an issue that could lead to legal action. About a half dozen employees told ESPN that they didn't have the energy or financial resources to consider a court battle.
Ex-employee defends Sarver
Arizona's Family Sports Director Mark McClune spoked to a former Suns staffer, who did not want to go on camera, about the Sarver. He is a man of color and was interviewed by Holmes for the Sarver story. He said he never witnessed any acts of racism. He told McClune, "It doesn't makes sense, objectively. Why would you give the keys to the organization to people of color if you were a racist" The ex-employee worked for the organization for 24 years and was let go before the NBA Finals run in 2021. He added if any body has the right to be disgruntled, it's him.
Sarver and team respond to allegations
Hours after the explosive report came out, Sarver came out fully denying any and all parts of the story. Sarver says he welcomes an "impartial" NBA investigation and says that only that may clear his name and reputation.
“I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes. While there is so much that is inaccurate and misleading in this story that I hardly know where to begin, let me be clear: The n-word is not part of my vocabulary. I have never called anyone or any group of people the n-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in. The way I lead my personal and professional life makes that clear. Instead of reporting the truth, Holmes’ story is based on misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed “sources.” Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization. He is clearly not a credible source. Despite hearing from witness after witness that disputed Mr. Watson’s stories, Mr. Holmes completely disregarded the truth here. Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen.
At this point, 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.”
Sarver will get his wish. The NBA released its own statement from executive vice president of communications Mike Bass saying the allegations were “extremely serious” and that the league has asked the Wachtell Lipton law firm to “commence a comprehensive investigation.”
“The NBA and WNBA remain committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees," Bass said. "Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”
Several members of the Suns Legacy Partners, including Larry Fitzgerald also chimed in with a joint statement, saying that they "dispute the characterization" of Sarver and the Phoenix Suns. They also said that they welcomed Commissioner Silver's investigation.
Phoenix Suns' President and CEO Jason Rowley called ESPN's report "plagued" with journalistic failures. Rowley adds that the team, including Sarver" have tirelessly to be a leader in hiring minority, LGBTQ, and woman executives. In reference to the claims of racist, foul, and demeaning language used by Sarver is "complete fiction"
"Today’s story contains false information and narratives perpetuated by a reporter who has struggled unsuccessfully to match the facts to a story he decided he wanted to tell a year ago," said Rowley. "He twisted statements and circumstances to fit his preconceived narrative. He broke every rule of journalism by first deciding on his findings and then cherry-picking events and unreliable sources to prop up his demonstrably false claims.
Vice chairman Jahm Najafi was the first to respond to the report. Najafi said the report saddened him and says he's offering his full support to hold the team accountable.
I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns. The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable. The well-being and safety of every Suns employee, player, coach and stakeholder is first and foremost our priority. My sincerest sympathy goes out to all whose lives and professions have been impacted. I am personally committed to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism, and bias, which is unacceptable anywhere in our society. I have partnered with the NBA Foundation to underscore this commitment. The Phoenix Suns is a national treasure that belongs to all of us as fans and residents of our community. Team investors are simply temporary stewards of this treasure. It is our job as stewards to ensure everyone is treated respectfully and equally. Although today’s revelations fall under the jurisdiction of the League which decides and takes any action based on its finding, I offer my support to ensure there is full accountability.
Vice Chairman Andy Kohlberg released a statement on Friday:
“I have known and been business partners with Robert Sarver in multiple businesses for more than 17 years. I have been Vice Chairman of the Phoenix Suns since 2011 and have attended regular meetings with the Suns senior management team and Robert Sarver since that time. I’ve attended hundreds of Suns games in person, and I’ve had conversations with staff at all levels of the organization, and no one has raised with me any issues about any sexist or racist behavior from Robert, and no one had ever made comments to me alluding to the culture of the organization that were consistent with allegations made in the ESPN article released on Nov. 4, 2021. In addition, I have never seen nor heard Robert make any statements that I experienced as racist, sexist or misogynistic.
I was never contacted by the author of the article or ESPN to provide comments on these allegations. As stated in the article, only after the Suns attorneys requested that a wider group be interviewed did the author reach out to Steve Kerr and Lon Babby, as both were key people in the Suns organization at the time many of these allegations were alleged to have occurred. In my many years of working alongside both Steve Kerr and Lon Babby, I’ve known them to be people of exceptionally high integrity and character, and neither they nor I would have remained part of an organization that had a culture like what was described in the article.
I have focused my entire business career building organizational cultures based upon integrity, dignity and compassion. In all my experiences with Robert Sarver, he has been a person of honesty and integrity, and I have never witnessed anything approaching racist or sexist behavior from him.”
We knew it was coming
Arizona's Family learned about the allegations and imminent article from NBA insider and analyst Jordan Schultz on Oct. 22. McClune interviewed Schultz, who said the ESPN piece has been brewing for over a year, and it was expected to come out soon.
"I have been told within the next week or two, but that was before I had reported it was coming," Schultz told McClune. "With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if it got expedited...I think it'll be sooner than later because from my understanding, ESPN has been working on this story for about a year with upwards of 50 to 100 people on the record," explained Schultz.
After word of the allegations got out, the team issued a statement saying they have evidence and eyewitness accounts that directly contradict Schultz's claims. "We urge everyone not to rush to judgment here. Especially based on lies, innuendo, and a false narrative to attack our organization and its leadership," posted the team in a statement.