ESPN: Suns Employees Say Misconduct Within Organization Went Beyond Robert Sarver

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVDecember 19, 2022

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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Some employees within the Phoenix Suns believe majority governor Robert Sarver wasn't the only person responsible for fostering a toxic environment within the organization, according to ESPN's Baxter Holmes.

One source told Holmes that Sarver "created the culture" and other high-ranking team executives "upheld it":

"In interviews with more than two dozen current and former Suns employees, ESPN confirmed specific accounts of alleged misconduct by [team president Jason Rowley] and other Suns executives in the report — and uncovered additional allegations, including verbal abuse of employees, mistreatment of pregnant and postpartum employees, and other instances of retaliation and intimidation."

The NBA commissioned the law firm of Wachtell Lipton to investigate the workplace atmosphere of the Suns after Holmes first published an in-depth report into the matter in November 2021.

The firm found that Sarver "engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and League rules and policies." That included using the N-word on at least five occasions, verbal mistreatment of employees and demonstrating "inequitable conduct toward female employees."

As a result of the inquiry, Sarver was fined $10 million and suspended from all league-related business for one year, a punishment many felt was too light given the severity of the allegations.

Amid continued scrutiny, the 61-year-old announced in September he planned to sell the Suns and the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.

In general, Sarver was singled out for his behavior, but the Wachtell Lipton report alluded to issues beyond ownership:

"Many witnesses nonetheless expressed the view that Sarver was responsible for the problematic behavior of other employees and the HR department's defects because of the 'tone at the top' he set through his own conduct. This hypothesis is difficult to test, but it warrants mention because so many witnesses advanced it in such consistent terms. Many current and former executives and employees told investigators they believed Sarver's conduct had a trickle-down effect: he behaved poorly toward his direct reports, and those reports in turn felt they had license to mistreat their own reports."

In one example, a female employee told Wachtell Lipton she encountered resistance when trying to get her maternity leave approved. Shortly after returning to work, she was fired. Wachtell Lipton said that "male team executives tried to terminate the female employee while she was on leave" but chose to wait based on advice from a female supervisor.

According to Holmes, Rowley was one of the male executives who wanted to fire the employee while she was on leave.

Wachtell Lipton also cited an "institutional failure" in 2019 after a female employee reported having her buttocks grabbed by a representative of a team sponsor on a work trip. Not only did the Suns fail to take any action against the sponsor representative, despite the female employee reporting the incident, she also had to continue working at events with the representative.

Holmes reported that Rowley, chief revenue officer Dan Costello, general counsel Melissa Goldenberg and Kyle Pottinger, the senior vice president of ticket sales and service, were aware of the allegation.

In a statement to Holmes, the Suns said his reporting had "factual inaccuracies and/or [was] deprived of important context necessary to understand the totality of situations that are complicated and matters of some dispute."

In terms of potential consequences for powerful officials within the organization, Holmes cited one hurdle.

Per the ESPN report, interim governor Sam Garvin doesn't have the authority to unilaterally fire Rowley, Costello or chief financial officer Jim Pitman. Sarver's written approval is needed to make any changes to the roles of CEO, CRO and CFO.

The Suns issued a statement in response to the report:

Duane Rankin @DuaneRankin

<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Suns?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Suns</a> statement in reaction to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ESPN?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ESPN</a> report. <a href="https://t.co/C0Gq0hjwi8">pic.twitter.com/C0Gq0hjwi8</a>

NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told Holmes the league is continuing to look into alleged employee misconduct within the Suns.

"Both the sales process of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury and the review of alleged misconduct by others at the organization are ongoing," he said. "That review will remain an internal personnel matter."