Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver has been suspended by the NBA for one year and fined $10 million following a league investigation into allegations of him using racial slurs, creating an inequitable work environment for women, and engaging in harsh and demeaning treatment of employees.
In a statement on Tuesday, the NBA revealed it found that Sarver used the N-word on at least five occasions during his tenure as owner of the Suns and WNBA’s Mercury.
‘As stated in the report, the independent investigation found that Mr. Sarver ‘engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards, as reflected in team and League rules and policies,’ read the league statement. ‘This conduct included the use of racially insensitive language; unequal treatment of female employees; sex-related statements and conduct; and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.’
In addition to saying the N-word ‘at least five times,’ Sarver is also accused of using language and engaging in conduct demeaning to female employees, including the time he asked a pregnant worker if she would be unable to perform her duties after becoming a mother. The unidentified woman was told my a team executive to start looking for a new job, and was ultimately demoted.
Following the NBA’s announcement on Tuesday, ESPN reported that sources said that Sarver ‘cooperated fully’ with the league investigation, but objected to the one-year ban and $10 million fine.
‘The punitive part of the process became largely acrimonious,’ tweeted ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
It was ESPN’s reporting in October that initially led to the league investigation.
Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver (pictured) has been suspended by the NBA for one year and fined $10 million following a league investigation into allegations of him using racial slurs, creating an inequitable work environment for women, and engaging in harsh and demeaning treatment of employees
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called the investigation’s findings ‘troubling’ in a league statement.
‘The statements and conduct described in the findings of the independent investigation are troubling and disappointing,’ said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. ‘We believe the outcome is the right one, taking into account all the facts, circumstances and context brought to light by the comprehensive investigation of this 18-year period and our commitment to upholding proper standards in NBA workplaces.
‘I am hopeful that the NBA community will use this opportunity to reflect on what this great game means to people everywhere and the values of equality, respect and inclusion that it strives to represent. Regardless of position, power or intent, we all need to recognize the corrosive and hurtful impact of racially insensitive and demeaning language and behavior. On behalf of the entire NBA, I apologize to all of those impacted by the misconduct outlined in the investigators’ report. We must do better.’
NBA commissioner Adam Silver (center) called the investigation’s findings ‘troubling’ in a league statement
Sarver made misogynistic comments to female subordinates — once asking ‘do I own you?’ — and frequently used the N-word, according to a bombshell report released last year that detailed allegations of racism and sexism from more than 70 current and former employees.
‘The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale,’ one Suns co-owner told ESPN about Sarver in the October piece. ‘It’s embarrassing as an owner.’
‘If the commissioner comes in and investigates to see what the f*** is going on in Phoenix,’ a current employee told ESPN, ‘[he] would be appalled.’
‘There’s literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me,’ said a former Suns executive.
Of those who spoke to ESPN, mostly on the condition of anonymity, nearly a dozen say they’ve sought professional help for issues such as anxiety and sleep loss due to the working conditions, which were exacerbated by Sarver’s frequent verbal abuse. One person said they contemplated suicide.
The ESPN report had been anticipated since October 22, 2021, when podcaster Jordan Schultz teased its publication on Twitter. Sarver has denied or disputed nearly all of the claims, both before the article’s publication, and in the article itself.
Sarver, 60, was accused by former Suns coach Earl Watson of using the N-word to complain in 2016 that Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green had used the term on the court.
‘You can’t say that,’ said Watson, who is Hispanic and black.
‘Why?’ Sarver asked. ‘Draymond Green says [N-word].’
‘You can’t f****ing say that,’ Watson repeated.
In addition to saying the N-word, Sarver is also accused of using language and engaging in conduct demeaning to female employees, according to the NBA statement (pictured)
Sarver only admits to using the N-word once, years earlier.
‘On one occasion a player used the N-word to describe the importance of having each others’ back,’ the NBA team owner told ESPN through his attorneys. ‘I responded by saying, ”I wouldn’t say n***a, I would say that we’re in the foxhole together.”
‘An assistant coach approached me a short time after and told me that I shouldn’t say the word, even if I were quoting someone else. I immediately apologized and haven’t said it ever again. The N-word has never been a part of my vocabulary.’
Sarver also disputed having that alleged conversation with Watson, who now works as a Toronto Raptors assistant coach after being fired from Phoenix in 2017.
‘Let me be crystal clear: I never once suggested on that night (or ever) that I should be able to say the N-word because a player or a black person uses it,’ Saver said through his attorneys.
Former NBA star Corliss Williamson (far left, with Deandre Ayton), who served as a Suns assistant coach until 2019, said he remembers Sarver became irate that first-overall pick Deandre Ayton had failed to record a block or a foul in a particular game, causing the owner to slam the stat sheet down on a table. ‘In all my years, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an owner come in there and act like that with the coaching staff,’ Williamson told ESPN. In 2013, Sarver allegedly used the N-word to explain why he filled a head-coaching vacancy with Lindsey Hunter, who is black, over Dan Majerle (right), who is white
At least six Suns employees accused Sarver of using the N-word while quoting African Americans.
‘You’re like, ”Whoa! Robert, you can’t do that,”’ said a former executive.
Another African-American basketball operations staffer said he’s heard Sarver use the N-word several times.
In 2013, Sarver allegedly used the N-word to explain why he filled a head-coaching vacancy with Lindsey Hunter, who is black, over Dan Majerle, who is white.
‘These [N-word] need a [N-word],’ Sarver told the staffer.
The NBA investigation could not corroborate that specific allegation, but did speak to witnesses who claimed Sarver used the N-word while claiming to repeat African Americans, who had said it.
Rich Paul (seated next to Adele) owns the agency, Klutch Sports, that represents former Suns coach Earl Watson. Sarver allegedly told Watson to fire Paul if he wanted to keep his job
Watson also claimed Sarver threatened to fire him unless he replaced his agency, Klutch Sports, the Rich Paul-owned firm that also represents LeBron James.
‘Yeah, I will f***ing fire you,’ Sarver allegedly told Watson. ‘You have 10 days to think about it. Don’t wait too long.’
Paul, who recently made news for dating singer Adele, also represents now-former Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. As his attorneys told ESPN, Sarver felt that it was a conflict of interest to have one agency representing a player and the coach, which is what he found objectionable.
Watson was fired after the Suns lost their first three games of the 2017-18 season.
The former Suns coach also claims that Sarver complained that diversity was a bad thing.
‘I don’t like diversity,’ Sarver allegedly told Watson, arguing that it led to too many disagreements among staff.
Sarver’s attorneys disputed this claim as well, saying the club ‘has a long history of prioritizing racial diversity since Mr. Sarver purchased an ownership interest in the team.’
In 2013, Sarver allegedly used the N-word to explain why he filled a head-coaching vacancy with Lindsey Hunter (right), who is black, over Dan Majerle, who is white
According to ESPN, around a dozen current and former Suns employees are in treatment for issues such as anxiety and sleep loss due to frequent verbal abuse from Sarver.
‘When I went to the psychologist, I cried a bucket of tears,’ one executive told ESPN. ‘And it’s like that with a lot of us. It’s just sad.’
Employees were reportedly discouraged from filing complaints with human resources. Several were dismissed after submitting complaints and were told they no longer fit the organization, according to ESPN.
Women, in particular, have felt targeted by Sarver, who’s not only accused of making sexist statements, but condoning such boorish behavior from male employees.
‘It breaks you,’ said one female former employee. ‘I’m hard to break, and it broke me.’
‘It wrecked my life,’ said another. ‘I was contemplating suicide.’
‘I think as women, when we come into sports, unfortunately, we’re resigned to the fact that we’ll be sexually harassed at some point,’ a female former marketing employee told ESPN. ‘But the part that was the worst for me is the verbal abuse and feeling like I wasn’t human.’
After allegedly berating a female employee until she cried in 2011, Sarver is said to have asked: Why do all you women around here cry so much.’
Sarver’s attorneys denied this claim and said he does not ‘remember a single instance that an employee ever cried in front of’ him.
Following the alleged incident, Sarver asked female Suns employees to begin having lunch with workers at his bank, in what was perceived to be an effort to toughen up his female work force with the NBA club.
‘So humiliating,’ one female former employee said she felt about the arranged lunch.
Saver’s attorneys said that those networking lunches between the bank and team ‘have been encouraged for men and women.’
One female marketing employee told ESPN that Saver made strange, possessive comments about employees.
‘Do I own you?’ Sarver allegedly asked. ‘Are you one of mine?’
‘He makes you feel like you belong to him,’ the employee said.
The culture within the office wasn’t much better, according to the report.
The Suns enjoyed a resurgence in 2020-21, reaching the Finals for the first time since 1993
Another female employee said she was assaulted by a male co-worker outside of the office, and when coworkers complained to HR, the club’s solution was to move her desk away from his by about 10 feet.
‘I couldn’t escape,’ she told ESPN. ‘It was a joke. An absolute joke.’
The male staffer was never investigated, but according to the Suns, that was because both employees declined to speak with HR.
Furthermore, the Suns denied telling ‘either employee to ‘move [their] desk’ to resolve the domestic issue they were having.’
ESPN reports that three employees contradicted the team’s denial.
Another female former employee said a Suns executive drunkenly asked how many coworkers she had slept with and specifically inquired about one coworker’s penis.
‘It was terrible because I had not had sexual interactions with anybody on [the 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.’
Earl Watson (pictured) remembers Sarver trying to draw up plays, including one that violated the NBA’s three-second rule. ‘He was asking [players] to set up a pick-and-roll in the middle of the paint,’ Watson said. ‘How is that even possible with three seconds and no spacing?’
Most, but not all, of the former employees said they were too scared to take legal action.
‘Ultimately, I was too afraid and exhausted to pursue it,’ a female former marketing employee told ESPN. ‘I even had my attorney offer to do the whole pro bono thing, but I was broken down so badly by then. I wasn’t sleeping or eating or functioning well, so I felt it was easier to move on and take the offer. I regret not pursuing it.’
One African-American employee was repeatedly called ‘Carlton’ by a white executive in reference to the black ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ character. According to to former employees, their black co-worker told the executive to stop calling him that.
The employee was also asked, and refused, to do Carlton’s dance from the popular 90s TV show.
‘Super racist,’ a former employee told ESPN.
Speaking with ESPN, the executive denied asking the employee to dance like Carlton and said the two had a ‘jovial’ relationship: ‘one of friendship and respect.’
Sarver (right) also owns the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. In this 2021 shot, he’s pictured alongside WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner
Sarver has also been accused of behaving as if he’s a member of the coaching staff.
Former NBA star Corliss Williamson, who served as a Suns assistant coach until 2019, said he remembers Sarver became irate that first-overall pick Deandre Ayton had failed to record a block or a foul in a particular game, causing the owner to slam the stat sheet down on a table.
‘In all my years, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an owner come in there and act like that with the coaching staff,’ Williamson told ESPN.
Watson remembers Sarver trying to draw up plays, including one that violated the NBA’s three-second rule.
‘He was asking [players] to set up a pick-and-roll in the middle of the paint,’ Watson said. ‘How is that even possible with three seconds and no spacing?’
Assistant coach Joe Prunty, who did not speak to ESPN, reportedly became the target of Sarver’s rage for explaining why the team had struggled to make defensive adjustments against Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas in a 2019 game. Prunty, a veteran NBA assistant coach, gave a complex answer, which witnesses believed was too technical for Sarver.
‘Joe starts throwing all the s*** at him, [and] the guy has no idea what any of that means,’ said one former coach.
Sarver walked out of the room, yelling ‘no adjustments,’ on the way out, according to the report.
A month later, then-head coach Igor Kokoskov and his staff, including Prunty, were fired.
‘He was constantly meddling and trying to coach himself or go into the coaches’ office and start drawing X’s and O’s on the board at halftime and tell them they need to do this, they need to do that,’ one staffer told ESPN.
Since rumors of the ESPN report’s anticipated release began circulating last month, several Suns employees have come out in favor of Sarver. ‘None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t,’ said Suns GM James Jones (pictured)
Veteran Suns guard Jamal Crawford reportedly left the locker room once when he heard Sarver talking strategy with rookie guard Elie Okobo.
‘He actually got up off the table and walked out of the room and said, ”I can’t f***ing listen to this s***. I gotta get out of here,”’ a staffer said.
Crawford, who is now retired, declined to comment to ESPN.
Another basketball operations staffer said Sarver began calling at all hours of the night to deliver a verbal attack about the Suns’ play.
‘I never felt comfortable there,’ the staffer told ESPN. ‘And I was there for a long time. … I didn’t even get fired. If that gives you any context — I left on my own. There’s no reason to be miserable every day anymore.’
The Suns enjoyed a resurgence in 2020-21, reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 before falling to the Milwaukee Bucks. Phoenix is 3-3 so far this year.
Since rumors of the ESPN report’s anticipated release began circulating last month, several Suns employees have come out in favor of Sarver.
‘None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t,’ said Suns GM James Jones, who is black.
Meanwhile, the Suns President and CEO Jason Rowley described the ESPN piece as ‘false narratives’ and ‘completely outrageous and false,’ before adding that the organization plans to ‘act accordingly.’
In 2014, the NBA, led by commissioner Adam Silver, removed Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling when secretly recorded audio surfaced in which he told his then-girlfriend that he didn’t want her seen with African Americans at games.
He ultimately sold the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
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