Robert Sarver’s Alleged Use of Racial Slurs, Misogyny, More, Detailed in ESPN Report

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVNovember 4, 2021

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 13: Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver attends Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Finals at Footprint Center on October 13, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Mercury defeated the Sky 91-86 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver has been accused of creating a "toxic and sometimes hostile workplace" in which he is alleged to have regularly used racist and misogynistic language over the course of his 17-year tenure, according to ESPN's Baxter Holmes.

Holmes spoke with 70 current and former members of the Suns organization and summarized some of the details they shared in numerous accounts of Sarver's behavior and the workplace environment:

"Some told ESPN that he has used racially insensitive language repeatedly in the office. Employees recounted conduct they felt was inappropriate and misogynistic, including Sarver once passing around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and speaking about times his wife performed oral sex on him. Some said the longtime owner fostered an environment in which employees felt they were his property, even once asking one woman whether he 'owned' her to determine whether she worked for the Suns."

In October, the Suns and Sarver issued statements in advance of the investigation. Sarver said in part that "some of the claims I find repugnant to my nature and to the character of the Suns/Mercury workplace and I can tell you they never, ever happened."

Phoenix Suns @Suns

<a href="https://t.co/wMyyZ5TOmt">pic.twitter.com/wMyyZ5TOmt</a>

Sarver also provided multiple denials to Holmes through his legal representatives: "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."

Holmes opened the piece by recounting a 2016 incident in which then-head coach Earl Watson said Sarver used the racial slur in front him and asked, "Why does Draymond Green get to run up the court and say [it]?"

Although Sarver said he used the racial slur on one occasion, he disputed Watson's retelling of the 2016 exchange. He instead said he approached a Suns player who received a technical foul for using the N-word in the middle of a game and said the player should appeal the ruling.

"This is absolutely untrue," he said. "I remember the game and topic clearly. I of course never used the word myself. During this conversation, I said 'N-word' without saying the full word. The word itself never crossed my lips."

The player in question didn't recall having the conversation with Sarver.

According to Holmes, at least six team staffers spoke about "Sarver hearing a story from a Black player and then using the same language when retelling it, down to the usage of the N-word."

He allegedly also preferred hiring Watson or Lindsey Hunter as head coach—Hunter was the interim replacement for Alvin Gentry in 2012-13—because they were Black. Regarding Hunter, in particular, a staff member said Sarver said "these [N-words] need a [N-word]" in reference to the Suns players.

In terms of wider organizational issues, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told Holmes the league office has yet to receive any formal complaints. Likewise, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts "said she was not aware of any reports from players of misconduct by Sarver or the Suns," noting that the organization hasn't had much official contact with the team except with point guard and former NBPA president Chris Paul and general manager James Jones.

However, one current member of the Suns' business operations team said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would be "appalled" if the league were to investigate the Suns' inner workings.

One former female employee told Holmes she felt Sarver didn't believe women held much value and were "possessions."

The problems weren't isolated to Sarver, with employees telling Holmes that Suns executives were responsible for creating an uncomfortable workplace.

In one instance, a female employee said she was physically assaulted by a male co-worker outside the workplace. After reporting the alleged assault to the organization's human resources department, the woman said they decided merely to move her desk to a different row in the same room as the man. To her knowledge, there was no additional investigation into the situation.

Sarver later issued a statement, noting he would "entirely welcome" an "impartial NBA investigation" into the matter:

"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 discussed the situation in a statement, applauding those who came forward and spoke out:

Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes

Earl Watson releases a statement through the Toronto Raptors <a href="https://t.co/ggYB219taw">pic.twitter.com/ggYB219taw</a>

Sarver took control of the Suns in 2004 for $401 million.

He has previously been criticized for his stewardship of the franchise because of Phoenix's lack of on-court success. Following Mike D'Antoni's final season (2007-08), the Suns have made the playoffs twice, reaching the NBA Finals in 2020-21.

In March 2019, ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz also detailed dysfunction behind the scenes, though his report was largely limited to basketball-related matters.