Phoenix Suns’ alleged workplace culture takes heavy hit from ESPN report

Nov 4, 2021, 4:48 PM | Updated: 4:53 pm
Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns, looks on during the second half of the NBA game against t...
Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns, looks on during the second half of the NBA game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 04, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Bucks 114-105. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Zoom out. All the way to 30,000 feet. Look down.

Our country needs an ethical renaissance. We need accountability for the rich and powerful. We need to reset and refine the boundaries of human behavior and human interaction. We need to be the people we read about in history books.

Now, zoom in. All the way down on Robert Sarver, managing partner of the Suns, subject of an ESPN investigation that spoke with over 70 people.

The story is like cauliflower casserole. It smells bad and it’s hard to swallow. It features heavy allegations and tired anecdotes, scorned ex-employees and private agendas. It also alleges a workplace culture that is hellish, shameful and starts at the very top, a culture of intimidation and inappropriate behavior where employees kept quiet for fear of retaliation, where one ex-female employee claims to have contemplated suicide.

Through his lawyers, Sarver has denied all charges of racism and misogyny. Current general manager James Jones redirects criticism at one of the few Sarver accusers willing to go on the record, former head coach Earl Watson. There is no smoking gun like Donald Sterling’s racist voice caught on tape.

From the very beginning, this piece of investigative journalism has been framed poorly. Suns fans negatively impacted by the owner’s controlling/meddling ways and recurring frugality over the past 17 years giddily wondered if it would be enough to remove Sarver from office. That shouldn’t be the focus here.

Instead, it’s an alleged workplace culture that reportedly remains in the dark ages, failing to keep up with a basketball culture that is now among the elite in the NBA.

That was also the thrust of a statement released by Suns Vice Chairman Jahm Najafi, a billionaire minority owner, who seemed to hit the perfect notes, calling the allegations “unacceptable” and apologizing to any employees who felt uncomfortable in the workplace, with nowhere to turn.

The piece is enough for the NBA to launch its own investigation.

Seven years ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver famously kicked Sterling out of the league for life, the owner of a Clippers team that featured Chris Paul. It was a gesture that spoke volumes to NBA players, setting a foundation for what is a tremendous spirit of cooperation between the two parties.

It will be interesting to see how Paul, head coach Monty Williams and the rest of the Suns react to this investigation. They have interacted with Sarver a great deal during their run to the NBA Finals in 2021, and their collective experience will matter how they receive this report, and whether they support or attempt to distance themselves from Sarver.

But this story is no longer inside the locker room. It’s not about racism. It’s about human relations, literally and figuratively. An NBA investigation might trigger another round of allegations and witnesses, empowering people who were too afraid to speak up until now. And if the alleged workplace culture is accurately depicted in Thursday’s expose of the Suns, there needs to be a new leader at the top, for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6-10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Phoenix Suns’ alleged workplace culture takes heavy hit from ESPN report