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NBA to probe Suns’ Robert Sarver after report of racist, misogynistic and abusive behavior

Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns, has been accused of using racist and misogynistic language by current and former employees. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The NBA announced Thursday that it will launch an investigation of Robert Sarver, the longtime owner of the Phoenix Suns, after he was accused of using racist and misogynistic language and of fostering a hostile work environment by current and former team employees.

“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,” spokesman Mike Bass said 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 60-year-old Sarver, an Arizona real estate developer, has repeatedly denied the allegations made in an ESPN story published Thursday.

“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,” Sarver said.

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Former coach Earl Watson, a basketball operations staff member and an unidentified co-owner of the Suns were among those who made allegations against Sarver, who purchased the organization in 2004. Watson recounted a 2016 postgame exchange in which Sarver, who is White, repeatedly used the n-word after hearing a player use it on the court. When Watson objected, Sarver allegedly asked why he couldn’t use the n-word.

In a separate 2013 incident, the basketball operations staff member alleged that Sarver used the n-word to describe his reasoning for hiring Lindsey Hunter, who is Black, as the team’s coach.

Sarver said Thursday that the “n-word is not a part of my vocabulary,” but did acknowledge using it to ESPN while quoting a player. When an assistant coach objected to that usage, Sarver said he “immediately apologized” and refrained from using the word ever again. However, Sarver denied Watson’s account and said the former coach “created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization” and was “clearly not a credible source.”

The unidentified co-owner told ESPN that Sarver’s “level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale” and “embarrassing,” while multiple employees alleged Sarver had discussed his sexual relationships during staff meetings, made “demeaning sexual comments” toward them and referenced strippers during a free agency recruitment. A former Suns employee also said Sarver pantsed him in front of his co-workers during a 2014 fundraising event, an accusation that Sarver apologized for through his attorneys.

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“We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation,” the National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. “We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”

Watson, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, released his own statement later Thursday: “I am not interested in engaging in an ongoing battle of fact. Instead, I want to applaud the courage of the numerous players, executives, and staffers for fighting toxic environments of racial insensitivity, sexual harassment, and microaggressions with their truth. … 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.”

Suns President Jason Rowley, who along with General Manager James Jones had defended Sarver when word of the impending story became public last week, issued a statement Thursday saying the organization “vehemently rejects the claims” made about Sarver, adding that the story included “false information” and “twisted statements.”

Rowley said numerous Suns employees, including former coach Alvin Gentry, provided information that contradicted accounts presented in the story and that the NBA has not received any anonymous complaints about the Suns’ workplace environment to its tip line, which was established in 2018.

“We have been put in the position of trying to disprove things that didn’t happen,” Rowley said. “From a personal perspective, the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years is not a racist and he’s not a sexist. He’s a hard-driving, competitive and compassionate man, and I’m proud to work with him. … The language attributed to him — many times by anonymous sources — is a complete fiction.”

Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, said in a preemptive statement issued Oct. 22 that he was “wholly shocked by some of the allegations” made during the reporting process and said he found some of the claims to be “completely repugnant to my nature.”

“I reject any insinuation of personal or organizational racism or gender discrimination,” Sarver said. “I despise language that disrespects any individuals, regardless of race, gender, preference, or choice. Such language has no place in business or at home in what I consider Suns and Mercury families. … Even hints of racism or sexism in our culture today are toxic and damaging and should not be lightly raised. I categorically deny any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender.”

The NBA issued a lifetime ban to Donald Sterling in 2014 when the then-Los Angeles Clippers owner was caught on tape using racist language, and the league commissioned an independent investigation of the Dallas Mavericks upon allegations of workplace misconduct toward female employees. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver cannot unilaterally remove an owner; the league’s rules require a vote of three-quarters of the board of governors.

Jahm Najafi, a private equity investor and vice chairman of the Suns, issued a statement Thursday, independent from those issued by Sarver and Rowley, saying he would offer his “support to ensure there is full accountability” during the league’s investigation.

“The conduct [Sarver] is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable,” Najafi said. “The well-being and safety of every Suns employee, player, coach and stakeholder is first and foremost our priority. My sincerest sympathy goes out to all whose lives and professions have been impacted. I am personally committed to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism, and bias, which is unacceptable anywhere in our society.”

The Suns are off to a 4-3 start after reaching the NBA Finals last season for the first time since 1993.

Monty Williams, who was hired to coach the Suns in 2019, said the allegations were “sensitive” and “serious in nature” but added that the situation is “still not clear, as far as the facts are concerned.”

“All of it happened before I was here,” Williams said before Thursday night’s 123–111 win over the Houston Rockets. “Based on what you all know about me, the little you know about me, if any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat.”

Chris Paul and Devin Booker said that the Suns will do their best to remain focused despite the off-court distractions.

“The powers that be will look into it, do their investigations, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that us as a team have got to talk,” Paul said. “We’ll wait like everyone else for the due diligence to be done. In the meantime, we’ll keep working.”

Booker added that the Suns will follow Williams’s lead as the investigation unfolds.

”He’s the best at managing situations, controlling the room and keeping people focused forward,” he said. “You can feel everything he says. We’re sticking behind him. We’re going to keep playing hard for him and keep winning basketball games.”

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