Suns’ Robert Sarver and Jason Rowley refute ESPN reporting, former coach

Nov 4, 2021, 1:45 PM | Updated: 3:21 pm

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver walks on the court to congratulate players after the t...

Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver walks on the court to congratulate players after the team defeated the Las Vegas Aces 87-84 in Game Five of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs semifinals to win the series at Michelob ULTRA Arena on October 8, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns criticized the reporting tactics of ESPN’s Baxter Holmes after his story detailing alleged racist and misogynistic behaviors by owner Robert Sarver was published Thursday.

The team said it “retained defamation counsel after it became clear that Mr. Holmes’ reporting was plagued by journalistic failures,” Suns president and CEO Jason Rowley said in a statement.

Sarver said that he “entirely welcome an impartial NBA investigation.”

The Suns had released lengthy statements from its leaders, as well as general manager James Jones, on Oct. 22, when it was first revealed ESPN’s story was close to being published. Upon its publication Thursday, the story said that more than 70 people were interviewed, some on the record but many anonymously.

ESPN’s reporting had sources accusing Sarver of specific instances in which he used racist or misogynistic language. Sarver and his legal counsel were cited in the story denying many of the instances or correcting the record of other allegations.

Sarver’s statement released after the publication denies that he called anyone a racial slur, though the story says he spoke the word out loud without referring to anyone. Former Suns coach Earl Watson told ESPN that he told Sarver not to use the language after Sarver asked why Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green could say a racial epithet.

Sarver names Watson in his statement.

Writes Sarver:

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.

Watson in the past has claimed he was given an ultimatum to leave the team at the start of the 2017-18 season. It was revealed in the new ESPN story that Sarver told Watson he had to fire his agent representation to keep his job, the coach claimed.

Watson was fired three games into that year after multiple blowout losses.

Through the Toronto Raptors, where he is currently on staff, Watson released the following statement:

In Rowley’s statement, the president and CEO also attacked Holmes’ reporting tactics and pushed back against the idea that the NBA team and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury have a poor workplace culture.

Here is Rowley’s full statement:

The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization vehemently reject the claims made in today’s ESPN article. Our two organizations have always worked hard to create an environment that is respectful and diverse; where racism, sexism and damaging behavior of any kind are not condoned.

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. 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.

Former and current Suns employees and members of their families have shared their concerns with some of Mr. Holmes’s tactics. We were disappointed to see that instead of relying on legitimate sources of information, Mr. Holmes relied on the say-so of a disgruntled former coach to make completely false claims and to damage our hard-earned reputation. Numerous eyewitnesses – including former Suns president Lon Babby, John Shumate, and Alvin Gentry – told Mr. Holmes, in no uncertain terms, that they never witnessed the conduct he described.

We retained defamation counsel after it became clear that Mr. Holmes’s reporting was plagued by journalistic failures.

We have been put in the position of trying to disprove things that didn’t happen. From a personal perspective, the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years is not a racist and he’s not a sexist. He’s a hard-driving, competitive and compassionate man, and I’m proud to work with him. During Mr. Sarver’s tenure, the Suns/Mercury have been a leader among sports teams in the hiring of minority, LGBTQ, and female executives. The language attributed to him – many times by anonymous sources – is a complete fiction.

We take seriously any accusations of racism, sexism, or harassment of any kind – they have no place in our organization and are not tolerated. The Suns and Mercury are committed to providing a respectful, fun and gratifying office environment. Through the years, we have followed all evolving best practices to ensure our employees have healthy work/life balance.

It’s important to us and to me that every employee feels they play a central role in building something special. In the workplace, we’ve always tried to foster a diverse and inclusive workforce that prides itself on treating and paying our employees fairly and providing for their upward mobility. Just a few examples of the policies and training we offer employees include our Respect in the Workplace Policy and associated training, sexual harassment training, diversity and inclusion training, and a robust learning management system aimed at advancing professional development. We have a track record of hiring and promoting women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ candidates in roles that have been predominately held by men.

Our organization and the NBA also conduct workplace engagement and satisfaction surveys on a routine basis. Our most recent NBA–sponsored workplace satisfaction survey of our full-time employees conducted in 2020 reflected a 90% satisfaction rating. We have a track record of identifying areas of improvement from our surveys and taking action to create an even better workplace. We are also very clear in our communications to employees regarding the fact that these surveys and responses are anonymous and that in no case will employees suffer negative consequences from providing feedback on the surveys.

It is also important to note that the NBA put in place an anonymous employee tip line in 2018 to report workplace issues at the team level. To date, the NBA has never received any complaints in these areas regarding our organization.

Given ESPN’s and Mr. Holmes’s failure to report the facts, we welcome any investigation by the League to review and respond to these false accusations.”

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