ESPN report: Suns president Jason Rowley, others took part in toxic culture
Dec 19, 2022, 12:16 PM | Updated: 7:59 pm
(Arizona Sports/Matt Layman)
Anonymous Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury employees claim that, despite owner Robert Sarver serving a suspension as he seeks buyers for the franchises, several executives who have contributed to the teams’ toxic workplace culture remain employed, according to an investigative story published Monday by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes.
Since allegations of workplace misconduct by Sarver were confirmed in the independent investigation by the NBA-hired Wachtell Lipton law firm, the Suns have maintained that they have preached change and fixed many of the HR holes found.
But Holmes’ story includes more details and allegations of Sarver’s misconduct trickling down through his senior leadership.
Chief among those is Suns president and CEO Jason Rowley, a former lawyer who joined the Suns in 2007. He became chief operating officer in 2011 before being elevated to team president a year later.
“Both the sales process of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury and the review of alleged misconduct by others at the organization are ongoing,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement to ESPN. “That review will remain an internal personnel matter.”
Among the key points in Holmes’ story is that some of the top executives cannot be dismissed for their actions unless Sarver gives the OK. Writes Holmes:
In the NBA’s official punishment letter to the Suns, according to team sources, it lists a series of provisions. In the section regarding the team’s interim governor (Sam Garvin), it reads: the Interim Governor shall not have the authority to do, or cause the Teams (or their holding company) to do, any of the following without Mr. Sarver’s prior written approval (and in all cases subject to applicable League rules and agreements):
The last provision: “terminate or hire a new Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, or Chief Revenue Officer of either team.”
That would be chief financial officer Jim Pitman, chief revenue officer Dan Costello and Rowley.
The story included several alleged incidents of bullying, improper treatment of women — some pregnant — and failure to hold partners accused of harassment accountable.
Rowley, according to Holmes, is accused of cursing and screaming at a pregnant woman after he heard she complained about the organization’s reporting structure.
Later that year, in 2013, the same woman had problems having her maternity leave approved and was fired after she returned from the leave. While one of her supervisors asked for the executive team to wait until her return from leave to terminate her, others, including Rowley, pushed to have it done earlier.
That incident was referenced in the Wachtell Lipton report.
Another woman was the target of Rowley’s behavior when he “tore into” her after she had scheduled a company gathering at a restaurant. The restaurant said it had a scheduling mistake and couldn’t host the party — it was not the Suns employee’s fault, the restaurant said — but Rowley’s blame left her in tears. That employee eventually left the team.
There were also multiple examples of Rowley cursing and demeaning security officials who asked for his credentials and passes when he attended events at Footprint Center. The Suns ultimately made a special badge for executives that security employees renamed the “Rowley badge.” Those security employees were at one point told not to engage with Rowley, even if he entered restricted areas with large groups of associates.
At one point, Rowley asked a manager to “fix the problem” and emailed the manager with a follow-up requesting that an employee be fired after stopping Rowley’s wife for entering a restricted area.
In another case of the Suns allegedly mistreating a pregnant employee, general council Melissa Goldenberg “allegedly told the pregnant employee that the team didn’t have a formal maternity leave policy because ‘Robert doesn’t believe in one.'”
Sarver denied that was the case, according to Holmes:
“This is nonsense,” Sarver said. “During my time leading Western Alliance Bank, I spearheaded expanding maternity leave benefits for employees. My actions demonstrate not only that I ‘believe’ in maternity leave policies, but I improved them.”
Goldenberg’s professional connection to Sarver dates back to 2011, when, for a three-year period before joining the Suns, she served as corporate counsel for Western Alliance Bancorporation, where Sarver held a seat on the company’s board since 2002 and the title of executive chairman from 2018 to 2022.
The pregnant employee contacted other NBA teams to learn about their maternity leave programs, then presented this information to Goldenberg, the former employee said. Asked whether Sarver had been convinced after being presented the information, Goldenberg allegedly told the employee that Sarver wasn’t, the former employee said.
Sarver denied he was presented with information about other NBA teams’ maternity leave policies.
The employee went into preterm labor at 29 weeks, and her premature baby required treatment from an intensive care unit for the next two months, the former employee said. Goldenberg allegedly told the employee she needed to work from the hospital, which the employee did. The postpartum employee later applied for short-term disability and asked Goldenberg for an additional one to two weeks at home, according to the former employee. Goldenberg allegedly replied, “You can be a stay-at-home mom or you can work, but I need you (expletive) here.”
In 2019, Holmes reports that a sponsor representative groped a female Suns employee when the team was in Mexico City for a game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Several current employees told Holmes that the sponsor representative also texted the Suns employee his hotel room number and photos of the room. A current employee told Holmes that while the representative apologized the day after the alleged groping, the incident was not brought to human resources.
Rowley, Costello, Goldenberg and vice president of ticket sales Kyle Pottinger were alerted of the alleged groping but did not take action, Holmes was told. That female employee has continued to work at events that the sponsor representative attends.
Pottinger more recently, in 2022, suspended a courtside seat-holder after he “inappropriately touched” a female guest service staffer. Holmes reported that an employee said Pottinger cited the success of the team as the reason the Suns could take quick, aggressive action in a similar case to the Mexico City incident.
The Suns did not make any of the executives named in Holmes’ latest story available to comment to ESPN. The team in statements to ESPN reiterated that it has made mistakes on the past two decades and is taking accountability while still attempting to improve its workplace policies and culture.
The Suns issued a team statement later on Monday evening:
In September, at the conclusion of a full investigation, the NBA and an outside firm issued a comprehensive report on the workplace culture of Suns Legacy Partners, and we continue to do the work of using the report’s findings to grow and improve. We will continue to be accountable to our staff, partners, fans, players and the NBA, as we follow the NBA’s guidelines around workplace culture, including the creation of confidential, safe channels to anonymously report any issues. As we have said before, we are on a journey that began before last November, one that has included substantive changes to leadership, staff, policies and accountability measures.
At the beginning of this process, we encouraged all of our employees to participate in interviews for the NBA’s outside investigation and we have investigated issues raised within that report. We continue to encourage employees to utilize internal channels to report issues as they arise. To create a safe space for employee feedback and an environment of accountability, we fact-find related to each complaint on its merits. We will continue to keep any such investigations and their findings internal and confidential.
As we told the reporter of today’s story in reviewing his questions, there are factual inaccuracies not supported by the findings of already-completed internal or external investigations, including incorrect attribution of confidential claims made as part of the NBA investigation. That being said, as we move forward, we do so with the knowledge that we have not been a perfect organization. Our current leaders have taken accountability for the claims that have been substantiated through investigations. And all of us continue to be committed to learning, growing and upholding a culture of respect.