Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver suspended 1 year after NBA investigation
The NBA on Tuesday suspended Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver one year after concluding an investigation into allegations he used racist and misogynistic language in the workplace.
Interviewing 320 individuals and evaluating more than 80,000 documents, the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz concluded that Sarver “clearly violated common workplace standards” including “use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees, sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”
During his suspension, Sarver cannot be present at any NBA or WNBA facility, office area or practice facility. He cannot attend any league events or represent the Phoenix Suns or Phoenix Mercury in any capacity. He must not be involved in the business operations of the teams.
Sarver must complete a training program “focused on respect and appropriate conduct in the workplace.”
The owner was also fined $10 million, the maximum allowed by the NBA constitution.
Wachtell, Lipton Rosen & Katz said that the “investigation makes no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.”
The Suns organization issued the following in response to the owner’s suspension:
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) September 13, 2022
Sarver’s legal representatives issued a statement below:
The NBA’s independent investigation confirmed that none of Mr. Sarver’s actions or comments were based on racist, prejudiced, or misogynistic intent. These findings came after hundreds of witness interviews and the review of thousands of documents—including eighteen years of Mr. Sarver’s emails and personal text messages. The League also confirmed that there was no evidence, whatsoever, to support several of the accusations in ESPN’s reporting from November 2021. Finally, the NBA recognized that the Suns organization started improving its HR department and workplace culture long before the NBA’s investigation began.
Sarver issued a personal statement on Tuesday:
Good leadership requires accountability. For the Suns and Mercury organizations, that begins with me. While I disagree with some of the particulars of the NBA’s report, I would like to apologize for my words and actions that offended our employees. I take full responsibility for what I have done. I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values.
I accept the consequences of the NBA’s decision. This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.
The full report by Wachtell, Lipton Rosen & Katz can be viewed here.
The law firm said the Suns and Sarver cooperated with the investigation, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the owner was “unaccepting of the idea he deserved” the penalties of a suspension and fine.
The NBA first opened the investigation into Sarver and the Suns back on Nov. 4, 2021, following an ESPN article written by Baxter Holmes highlighting allegations of racist language and misogynistic comments by Sarver. Holmes said upward of 70 people were interviewed for the piece.
In a statement released after the story’s publication, Sarver said he “welcomed” the league to investigate, “which may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization of which I’m so very proud.”
The law firm’s finding concluded Sarver “on at least five occasions during his tenure (as owner) … repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.”
The key findings also said he “engaged in inequitable conduct toward female employees … made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees and other women and on several occasions engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward male employees.”
It also found that Sarver demeaned employees, including “yelling and cursing at them.”
Among those on the record with anecdotes of allegations in the original ESPN story were former head coach Earl Watson, assistant coach Corliss Williamson and player Taylor Griffin, all of whom are Black.
According to ESPN’s initial story, 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 investigation could not corroborate that instance of Sarver using that 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.”
Anonymous former and current employees said those in the Suns’ human resources department feared retaliation for pursuing investigations in some instances.