ESPN report: Suns owner Robert Sarver fosters hostile workplace

Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver allegedly runs — and sets the tone for — an organization that is “toxic” and “hostile,” according to a bombshell ESPN report published Thursday.

The report, based on interviews with more than 70 former and current Suns employees, alleges Sarver has made numerous racist and sexist remarks during the 17 years he has owned the franchise — comments that apparently have cast a pall over the team. He also owns the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.

“There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me,” a former Suns basketball executive told ESPN.

NBA Opens Investigation

In response to the report, the NBA announced it was opening its own investigation.

“The allegations contained in today’s ESPN article are extremely serious, and we have directed the Wachtell Lipton law firm to commence a comprehensive investigation,” said NBA executive vice president of communications Mike Bass in a statement. “The NBA and WNBA remain committed to providing a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees. Once the investigation is completed, its findings will provide the basis for any league action.”

The report is filled with examples of Sarver’s alleged use of the N-word, of comments about his genitals and remarks he purportedly made about him wanting strippers to get pregnant by players so that they would choose Phoenix in free agency to be near their children.

Sarver issued a statement Thursday via the Suns’ Twitter page:

ESPN’s reporting includes allegations of Sarver using a racial slur while explaining why the Suns needed a Black head coach, saying, “These (N-words) need a (N-word)”; flashing a photo of his wife in a bikini around team headquarters and discussing sexual acts between the couple; and berating coaches and basketball operations staff over the team’s play.

Those interviewed said the 60-year-old Sarver also fostered a culture that allowed team executives to behave in a similar manner.

Several women who formerly worked with the team described what they categorized as verbal abuse and sexual harassment from both co-workers and managers. One woman who worked on the sales staff said a former Suns vice president once asked her how many people in the organization she slept with and about the size of the genitals of some of the men.

“It was terrible because I had not had sexual interactions with anybody on (staff), so that was very weird,” she told ESPN. “And (it) also made me uncomfortable because my VP is asking me about my sexual history with other co-workers? That kind of thing was almost normal.”

Robert Sarver
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sarver’s team tried to paint a different picture of him and the organization for the ESPN report.

Through his attorneys, Sarver admitted to using the N-word once in conversation with a player who had used the word — and hasn’t used it since. He strongly denied other allegations.

Current, Former Employees Weigh In

ESPN said Sarver’s lawyers made a demand that the reporter contact 10 specific people to ask about their experiences with him. And while they said he could be tough, those hand-picked by Sarver’s team said he wasn’t racist or sexist.

“Robert is surely a demanding and, at times, difficult manager to work for,” said Lon Babby, Suns president of basketball operations from 2010-15. “But I can tell you as assuredly that he is not in any way shape or form a racist or guilty of any kind of sexual harassment or mistreatment of women.”

Steve Kerr, who worked in the organization from 2004-10 and now coaches the Golden State Warriors, concurred.

“I never saw anything that suggested racism or misogyny, and I was very surprised to hear those allegations because that’s not the person that I know,” Kerr said.

Toronto Raptors assistant coach Earl Watson, who began his coaching career with the Phoenix Suns in 2015 and spent three years with the organization, issue a statement Thursday.

Robert Sarver
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact,” the statement read. “Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions with their truth.

“Basketball and 17 years in the NBA has allowed me the financial privilege to speak my truth, but we can’t forget about those who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs. While our fortitude assists with progress, there is still more work to be done in the name of equality, and I believe that one of the strengths of our league is its ongoing commitment to justice.

“This has been a traumatic experience, one that has affected me profoundly, and I am not willing to relive it every day. But I will not forget it, and I will address it more fulsomely at a point in the future when I feel ready.”

Sarver became the Suns’ majority owner in 2004. An Arizona native, he made his fortune in banking and real estate.

–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia)