The N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. have opened an investigation into Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury basketball teams, after current and former employees accused him of racist, sexist and other inappropriate behavior in an ESPN report.
Sarver, who is white, was accused of frequently using an anti-Black racial slur in the presence of and in reference to employees and players, according to an ESPN report on Thursday. Sarver was also accused of saying other remarks that made Black employees uncomfortable and of making misogynistic and sexual comments about women in the workplace, according to the report.
One former Suns employee recalled Sarver pulling the employee’s pants down in front of dozens of employees as a joke.
After word of ESPN’s investigation into Sarver became public two weeks ago, the Suns pre-emptively released statements denying that Sarver had a history of racism or sexism. Sarver, in statements to ESPN for Thursday’s report, denied most of the accusations in the article.
Baxter Holmes, the ESPN reporter behind the article, said more than 70 current and former Suns employees were interviewed for the article. Most of the employees spoke anonymously about their experiences working for the team.
Here are the key takeaways.
- Who is Robert Sarver?
- What does the ESPN report say about racism?
- What does the report say about sexism and other inappropriate behavior?
- How have the Suns performed under Sarver?
- Is this another Donald Sterling situation?
- What is happening now that the report is out?
Who is Robert Sarver?
Sarver, 60, led the ownership group that purchased the N.B.A.’s Suns and the W.N.B.A.’s Mercury from Jerry Colangelo in 2004 for $401 million, then a record price for an N.B.A. team. He had made his fortune in banking, as the executive chairman of the Western Alliance Bank, and as a founding partner of Southwest Value Partners, a San Diego-based real estate firm.
Sarver has developed a reputation as an involved owner unafraid to draw attention to himself with showy stunts like dunking off a trampoline during halftime or being thrown from a giant slingshot. He has also expanded his sights beyond basketball, leading a group that included Steve Nash, who played for the Suns for several years, in buying the Spanish soccer club Real Mallorca.
On multiple occasions, Sarver batted down rumors that he was considering selling the Suns. In 2018, he reportedly demanded public funding for a $230 million renovation of the arena where the Suns and Mercury play, and threatened to move the team if he didn’t get it. Sarver denied that he had made the demand and committed to keeping the team in Phoenix.
Sarver and the Suns have also been the subject of critical reporting by ESPN before. In 2019, ESPN reported that the Suns had “no discernible direction” and described Sarver as an “interventionist owner with more authority than expertise.”
What does the ESPN report say about racism?
The report paints a picture of a meddlesome owner who fostered a work environment that was toxic, especially for women and Black people. The most prominent voice in the article was Earl Watson, who is Black and Hispanic and spent parts of four seasons in assistant, interim and head coaching roles with the Suns. He was fired in 2017, three games into his second season as head coach.
According to the report, Watson told ESPN that Sarver came into the coaches’ locker room after one game “repeating the N-word several times in a row” in discussing an opposing player’s use of the word on the court. Watson recounted to ESPN that he told Sarver, “You can’t say that.” At least six staffers told ESPN that they heard Sarver repeat the slur in other instances.
Sarver, through his legal team, told ESPN he had “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.” He said he had used the word “once many years ago” when he was repeating what a player had said but apologized.
In 2004, Sarver made “racially insensitive” comments in an initial recruitment meeting with Nash, according to ESPN, which cited three unnamed people who were in the room. Nash, now the head coach of the Nets, declined to comment to The New York Times on Thursday.
What does the report say about sexism and other inappropriate behavior?
Sarver was accused of making inappropriate comments about sex. In one instance, Sarver, according to ESPN, told a pregnant employee that she could not continue her work in coordinating an All-Star game because she would need to breast feed. Sarver denied these accusations.
In another instance, David Bodzin, a former Suns account executive, told ESPN that Sarver pulled Bodzin’s pants down in front of more than 60 employees as part of a charitable event in 2014. Sarver apologized in a statement to ESPN.
Several unnamed women in the article recounted instances of Sarver’s comments making them feel uncomfortable in the workplace.
How have the Suns performed under Sarver?
Within days of Sarver’s purchase, the Suns were ultimately successful in their pursuit of Nash, immediately rejuvenating a team that had a record of just 29-53 in the previous season. The Suns made the Western Conference finals in back-to-back seasons, under the stewardship of Bryan Colangelo, the head of basketball operations; Mike D’Antoni, the coach; and Nash.
After Nash led the Suns to the Western Conference finals in 2010, the Suns began to unravel. Over the next decade, the Suns missed the playoffs every year, cycling through coaches and executives. Since Sarver took over the team in 2004, the Suns have had nine different head coaches. The playoff-less stretch from 2011 to 2020 was the longest in franchise history.
Last year, the Suns made a surprising run to the N.B.A. finals, helped by a trade for point guard Chris Paul. They have regained a sense of organizational stability since James Jones took over basketball operations in 2018 and Monty Williams became coach in 2019.
The Mercury, meanwhile, have been a perennial playoff team. They won championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014, and lost to the Chicago Sky in last season’s finals.
Is this another Donald Sterling situation?
It’s unclear. Recordings emerged of Sterling, then the Clippers’ owner, making racist statements in 2014, and he was forced out of the league.
In a statement to ESPN, the N.B.A. said that it had not “received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence.”
Sarver has denied almost all of the accusations against him in the piece.
What is happening now that the report is out?
Both Sarver and Jason Rowley, the chief executive of the company that owns the Suns and the Mercury, released blistering statements denying the article’s claims and attacking ESPN and Holmes. Sarver said that there was “so much that is inaccurate and misleading” in the report and added that “the N-word is not part of my vocabulary.” He also accused Watson of creating “an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization.” Both Rowley and Sarver wrote that they welcomed an investigation from the N.B.A.
Jahm Najafi, a partial owner and vice chairman of the Suns and Mercury, said in a statement that the conduct described in the ESPN story “stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable,” and he pledged to offer his “support to ensure there is full accountability.”
Watson, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, said in a statement through the team on Thursday that he did not want to engage in an “ongoing battle of fact.” His years in the N.B.A. gave him the “financial privilege” to speak for the story, he said, but many others are silent because they fear losing their jobs.
In the statement from the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. announcing the investigation, the leagues called the accusations in the article “extremely serious.” The N.B.A. players’ union said in a statement that it supported the N.B.A.’s investigation. The W.N.B.A. players’ union did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.