Suns, Mercury Gov. Robert Sarver Suspended for 1 Year, Fined $10M After NBA Probe

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 13, 2022

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 08: Owner Robert Sarver of the Phoenix Suns attends the NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Phoenix Suns Arena on February 08, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. 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)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The NBA has suspended Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury managing partner Robert Sarver for one year following an investigation into the organization's workplace culture.

The league also levied a $10 million fine.

NBA Communications @NBAPR

The NBA today issued the following statement: <a href="https://t.co/jjlBK771PT">pic.twitter.com/jjlBK771PT</a>

According to ESPN's Baxter Holmes, Sarver will work with the NBA to find an interim governor for the Suns to fill in during his suspension.

Among the investigation's findings, the NBA said Sarver "engaged in instance of inequitable conduct toward female employees, made many sex-related comments in the workplace, 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."

Sarver also "engaged in demeaning and harsh treatment of employees, including by yelling and cursing at them."

According to Holmes and ESPN colleague Adrian Wojnarowski, Sarver was "unaccepting" of the idea that he deserved a year-long suspension and a $10 million fine.

The Suns issued a statement on the NBA's findings, noting the organization will "implement the workplace improvements the NBA has identified":

Phoenix Suns @Suns

<a href="https://t.co/zqoTLQV9GI">pic.twitter.com/zqoTLQV9GI</a>

Melissa Rohlin @melissarohlin

The Suns just released the following statements, including one attributed to Sarver: <a href="https://t.co/XQ4Cdf5oyv">pic.twitter.com/XQ4Cdf5oyv</a>

Last October, Sarver and the Suns issued statements in advance of a forthcoming report on the franchise. He said: "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."

Phoenix Suns @Suns

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

An investigation by Holmes subsequently was published Nov. 4, 2021. For the piece, Holmes spoke with more than 70 current and former team employees who described a "toxic and sometimes hostile workplace under Sarver":

"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."

Holmes opened his article with an alleged exchange in 2016 between Sarver and then-Suns head coach Earl Watson. Following a game against the Golden State Warriors, Watson said Sarver complained that Warriors star Draymond Green could say the N-word without repercussion, and Sarver used the full racial slur.

Sarver also allegedly said to one staffer, "These [N-words] need a [N-word]," in 2013 to explain why he preferred to hire a Black head coach—Lindsey Hunter—over associate head coach Dan Majerle.

Sarver disputed both allegations and said in a statement that Watson "is clearly not a credible source."

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

The NBA is expected to soon launch an investigation into the allegations reported today by ESPN’s <a href="https://twitter.com/Baxter?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@baxter</a> Holmes against Suns majority owner Robert Sarver … and Sarver just issued a statement in response that closes by essentially acknowledging an investigation is forthcoming: <a href="https://t.co/xJswSUl3vR">pic.twitter.com/xJswSUl3vR</a>

Watson responded that he was "not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact."

Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes

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

Holmes' investigation included allegations that didn't implicate Sarver directly but raised questions about his stewardship of the Suns behind the scenes.

One former female employee said she was physically assaulted by a male co-worker away from team facilities. The human resources department was made aware of the assault, and the woman said its only response was to move her desk farther away from the co-worker.

One woman said the toxic atmosphere inside the office "breaks you," and another said it "wrecked my life" and made her consider suicide.

Holmes also reported that employees feared retaliation if they spoke with HR about any concerns they had. A current staffer described HR as "the last place you go."

NBA spokesperson Mike Bass called the details alleged in Holmes' report "extremely serious" and said the league was bringing in the Wachtell Lipton law firm to oversee an investigation.

Sarver faced additional scrutiny after Holmes reported Penny Sarver, Robert's wife, reached out to at least three former Suns employees following his initial story: "These former employees say they consider the messages an attempt to intimidate them."

In one message, Penny issued what could be construed as a veiled threat: "If something happens to one of my children, I will hold you and Earl Watson personally responsible. Think about your own child for a second and imagine the tables turned."

She said she did send the messages but denied that intimidation was her intent and called it "as silly as it is wrong and outrageous."

Many wondered how the NBA would respond.

The league banned then-Los Angeles Clippers governor Donald Sterling for life in 2014 after he was caught on tape making racist remarks. Months later, Bruce Levenson sold his stake in the Atlanta Hawks after a 2012 email surfaced in which he made racist comments.

Sarver led a group that purchased the Suns for $401 million in 2004.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post reported in 2017 that Sarver might be open to selling the franchise and that "the league would likely be quite happy if Sarver chose to move on" because of the Suns' prolonged futility. Sarver disputed the report.

Phoenix's fortunes on the court improved in the following years, and the team reached the 2021 NBA Finals.