ESPN details allegations of Suns owner Robert Sarver’s racism, sexism

Nov 4, 2021, 10:36 AM | Updated: 2:42 pm
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)...
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

An ESPN feature story alleging Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver of racism and sexist behavior, as well as fostering a “toxic” workplace environment, was published on Thursday.

The team had preemptively gotten ahead of the story, releasing a statement on Oct. 22 after a non-affiliated reporter had hinted at the upcoming story by ESPN. The Suns released another batch of statements from Sarver, plus president and CEO Jason Rowley, on Thursday following ESPN’s story going live.

“I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from Baxter Holmes,” Sarver said in a statement released after ESPN’s publication of the story. “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 and his legal team are heavily cited in the story that was published Thursday, refuting or correcting allegations from their perspective.

More than 70 former and current Suns employees were interviewed for the story by Baxter Holmes. Among those on the record are former head coach Earl Watson, assistant coach Corliss Williamson and player Taylor Griffin, all of whom are Black.

NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told ESPN that the league has not received complaints of misconduct about the Suns organization. But the story has many anonymous accounts, especially from former executives and fellow owners, who speak on a “toxic and hostile” workplace culture.

According to ESPN, some of the 20-member ownership group for the Suns considered ways to oust Sarver within the first decade of his ownership, which began in 2004.

“The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,” one Suns co-owner said about Sarver. “It’s embarrassing as an owner.”

“He’s not clueless,” said another member of the ownership group of Sarver’s behavior. “He’s doing it because of power.”

Former co-owner and general manager Steve Kerr, former president of basketball operations Lon Babby and current chief financial officer Jim Pitman spoke on the record to deny they’d seen evidence of indiscretions.

The specific allegations include anonymous staffers claiming Sarver hired former interim coach Lindsey Hunter over then-assistant Dan Majerle with racial motivations. He used explicit language while doing so.

“These [N-words] need a [N-word],” Sarver told the staffer of his largely Black team, according to the executive.

Sarver again cited race as the reason the team needed to hire Watson as head coach in 2016, a former Suns basketball executive said: A young Black coach could better relate to Black players, Sarver reasoned, and could “speak their language.”

The owner used racial epithets on multiple occasions, sources told ESPN. Watson said he had an exchange with Sarver about not using that language, as the owner was talking about how Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, who is Black, used the N-word.

There are multiple accounts in Holmes’ story alleging Sarver of using sexist language.

Former employees said he asked players about their sex lives and the sexual prowess of their significant others.

“Women have very little value,” one female former staffer said she felt. “Women are possessions. And I think we’re nowhere close to where he thinks men are.”

Sarver denied those allegations through his legal team, saying showing a picture of his wife in a bikini was about the business of the team shop, as she was wearing a Suns bikini the team could sell there.

Multiple employees recited another occasion where Sarver indicated a pregnant employee couldn’t continue in her role to coordinate 2009 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix. He denied that and said he was supportive of her.

In March 2011, Sarver berated that same female former employee over a tribute video to honor then-Suns executive Rick Welts, according to two employees with knowledge of the interaction. Sarver’s issue was that he wasn’t featured more prominently in the video and that, instead, it featured more of former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who hired Welts. At one point, the woman broke down in tears, to which Sarver said, “Why do all you women around here cry so much?”

ESPN reports that those in the human resources department were fearful of taking complaints on the record and believed being honest on surveys deployed to staffers would lead to retaliation.

“You want to do right by the employee and make sure that they’re not getting infringed upon,” the first former HR rep said. “But ultimately, you’re getting paid by the owner. So you’re the police. And there were some times where I told people, ‘You know, I’m not gonna tell you this on the record, and we need to go out to the parking lot or someplace, but I think you should sue.'”

Another HR representative said that it was common for the Suns to offer settlements for employees who had the resources to seek legal action. Half a dozen people told ESPN they did not pursue legal damages because they did not have the money to pursue anything legally — or they wanted to move on.

Going on the record, a former account executive, David Bodzin, said the team’s owner “pantsed” him during an employee event. Sarver apologized in a statement from his attorneys, saying he “thought it was taken as a joke by everyone in the room. … I understand, a short time later, that this was inappropriate.”

There were other instances where Sarver’s humor was not taken as such.

Sarver, according to multiple employees, told the 2012-13 team before a trip to Los Angeles that he would “fly women” there if they promising to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

“He was goofing around,” one staffer who was present said. “But little did he know, standing out in the hallway is one of our women staff members who cares for the family [of players and coaches].”

When the team was recruiting LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, two staffers said Sarver lamented that Aldridge had children in Texas, which put the San Antonio Spurs as Phoenix’s main competitors to sign the forward. He did so in this way:

During the recruitment, Sarver remarked to two basketball operations staffers that the Suns needed to have local strippers impregnated by NBA players so those players would have children in the Phoenix area and feel obliged to be closer to them, giving the Suns a potential edge in free agency, the now-former staffers said.

Sarver denied that he made those comments.

The issues with Sarver’s leadership appeared on the court as well.

Williamson cited a game in Deandre Ayton’s rookie year in which the center didn’t record a block or a foul during one game. The then-assistant coach said the owner slammed a box score in front of Williamson.

There are other examples of Sarver challenging the coaching staff and players after games or speaking out of his depth.

According to the story, Watson’s departure three games into the 2017-18 season was related to the Suns shutting down point guard Eric Bledsoe to tank the end of the prior season. That bled into the next year, ultimately leading in Watson’s firing.

Contract talks eventually led Bledsoe’s Klutch Sports agent, Rich Paul, to communicate directly with Sarver — the Suns owner didn’t want to extend Bledsoe’s contract in part due to concerns about Bledsoe’s durability, plus concerns that the team had performed poorly with him as the starting point guard, according to sources at the time. Paul responded to Sarver’s remarks by saying that he knew basketball and that they “weren’t talking about tennis,” Sarver’s childhood sport.

Sarver erupted at the dig, according to two people with knowledge of the interaction, telling Paul he was going to fire Watson as the team’s head coach if Watson didn’t sever ties with Klutch, which had been representing Watson, within 10 days – just after the start of the season.

Watson said that Sarver’s ultimatum quickly reached him. He asked Sarver if he was serious.

“Yeah, I will f—ing fire you,” Sarver told Watson. “You have 10 days to think about it. Don’t wait too long.”

Watson has previously been on the record about that ultimatum.

Sarver, president and CEO Jason Rowley and Suns general manager James Jones said in statements two weeks ago that they did not see evidence of Sarver acting in such ways.

Said the owner himself: “I don’t begin to know how to prove that something DIDN’T happen, and it is difficult to erase or forget ugly accusations once they are made. Even hints of racism or sexism in our culture today are toxic and damaging and should not be lightly raised. I categorically deny any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender. I would like to think that my actions and public record regarding race, gender, or discrimination of any kind, over a lifetime in business and community service, will adequately answer any questions anyone might raise about my commitment to equality and fairness.”

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ESPN details allegations of Suns owner Robert Sarver’s racism, sexism