Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver is accused in a bombshell report of racism and misogyny since he bought the team in 2004 for more than $400 million.
ESPN reported Thursday that current and former Suns employees in dozens of interviews described a toxic environment of racism and misogyny during Sarver’s tenure as the team owner. The report included several stories of Sarver, who is White, making racially insensitive remarks, including asking his former coach Earl Watson, who is Black, why he couldn’t say the N-world if Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green can say it, passing around photos of his wife in a bikini and speaking about his wife giving him oral sex.
The report detailed several incidents and allegations of Sarver creating an “if you don’t like it, there’s the door” environment in the organization, one former executive told ESPN.
Owner Robert Sarver stands with the Western Conference Championship trophy after the Suns beat the L.A. Clippers to win the series in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center on June 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, Calif. The Suns beat the Clippers to advance to the NBA Finals. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Another former basketball operations staffer described the environment as a “clown show.”
“Guys are jumping up and down looking ridiculous, and I’m getting texts from coaches around the league, like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ It becomes more of a circus and, ‘Let’s stand up and clap and appease Robert as opposed to doing what our job actually is, which is trying to coach the basketball game,’” the staffer said.
The report is peppered with denials about the allegations, with Sarver making the denials through his legal team. Sarver denied the incident regarding Green and Watson and denied using any racially insensitive language.
“I’ve never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by the N-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,” Sarver said.
Sarver did acknowledge using the N-word while talking to a player who used the N-word to “describe the importance of having each others’ back.”
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver (R) and wife Penny during an NBA game against the Houston Rockets at US Airways Center on Jan. 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Ariz. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
He said he responded to the player by saying, “’I wouldn’t say n—a, I would say that we’re in the foxhole together.” He said he was told by an assistant coach that he shouldn’t use the racial epithet at all and said he never used it again.
Sarver also said he never suggested he should be able to use the N-word because a Black player is able to say it.
Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi released a statement on the report.
“I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns. The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable. The well-being and safety of every Suns employee, player, coach and stakeholder is first and foremost our priority. My sincerest sympathy goes out to all whose lives and professions have been impacted. I am personally committed to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism and bias, which is unacceptable anywhere in our society,” Najafi said.
“I have partnered with the NBA Foundation to underscore this commitment. The Phoenix Suns is a national treasure that belongs to all of us as fans and residents of our community. Team investors are simply temporary stewards of this treasure. It is our job as stewards to ensure everyone is treated respectfully and equally. Although today’s revelations fall under the jurisdiction of the league, which decides and takes any action based on its finding, I offer my support to ensure there is full accountability.”
The ESPN report is a few weeks in the making. Last month, word got out on social media that many allegations would surface about Sarver using racist language and creating a misogynistic environment. Sarver and the organization immediately pushed back on the report even though nothing had been reported at the time.
“We understand that ESPN is considering publishing a proposed story that makes completely baseless claims against the Suns Legacy Partners, LLC organization concerning a variety of topics,” according to a statement attributed to the team. “Documentary evidence in our possession and eyewitness accounts directly contradict the reporter’s accusations, and we are preparing our response to his questions. We urge everyone not to rush to judgment here. Especially based on lies, innuendo and a false narrative to attack our organization and its leadership.”
Sarver also pushed back with a three-paragraph statement.
“I am wholly shocked by some of the allegations purported by ESPN about me, personally, or about the Phoenix Suns and Mercury organizations. While I can’t begin to know how to respond to some of the vague suggestions made by mostly anonymous voices, I can certainly tell you that some of the claims I find completely repugnant to my nature and to the character of the Suns/Mercury workplace, and I can tell you they never, ever happened,” Sarver said.
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 5 of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs semifinals to win a series at Michelob ULTRA Arena on Oct. 8, 2021 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
“First and foremost, I reject any insinuation of personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination. I despise language that disrespects any individuals, regardless of race, gender, preference or choice. Such language has no place in business or at home in what I consider Suns and Mercury families. I am proud of our record of diversity and inclusion on both teams – whether on the court or in the front office.
Suns general manager James Jones and CEO Jason Rowley both backed Sarver. Jones said the rumors didn’t describe what he knows about Sarver, and Rowley said Sarver was not a racist or sexist.
“I will also say that [the] reporter in this instance has shown a reckless disregard for the truth. He has harassed employees, former employees and family members; used truths, half-truths and rumors to manufacture a story in which he’s heavily invested and then perpetuate a completely false narrative within the sports industry to back it up. His tactics throughout this process have been without any basis in journalism ethics or even morality,” Rowley added.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN he hadn’t “received a complaint of misconduct about the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”