Suns' Sarver calls ESPN story's allegations of racism, misogyny 'inaccurate, 'misleading'

Duane Rankin
Arizona Republic
Last year, Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver released a statement, saying he's "wholly shocked" by the accusations and strongly denying them.

The Phoenix Suns and its managing partner have been hit with a situation that isn't going away anytime soon and could change the complete structure of the organization.

The NBA is launching an investigation into allegations that Robert Sarver has made repeated racist and sexually inappropriate remarks to his employees, creating a hostile work environment within the organization.

Sarver, majority owner of the Suns and Phoenix Mercury, strongly denied the allegations, which were detailed in an ESPN story published Thursday on its web site. He called the story "inaccurate and misleading,'' blaming it in part on a disgruntled former head coach. He also welcomed the league's investigation. 

The allegations include accounts of Sarver repeatedly using a racial slur in conversations and making other statements about Blacks considered racist. The report also details multiple occasions of Sarver making sexually inappropriate and misogynistic remarks around employees.

In one account, Sarver allegedly questioned why Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green was allowed to use the ''N-word'' during a game in 2016 after the Suns lost to Golden State, ESPN's Baxter Holmes reported. However, he used the full word, repeatedly.

This incident occurred during two-time All-Star Devin Booker's second NBA season with the Suns, then-head coach Earl Watson said, according to the ESPN report.  After the loss to the Warriors, Sarver, who is white, entered the coaches' locker room and asked why Green got away with saying the (N-word) during the game, Watson told ESPN.

Watson told Sarver he can't say the racist word, but Sarver questioned why he couldn't, since Green said it. 

"You can't f---ing say that," Watson said he told Sarver, who fired Watson three games into the 2017-18 season.

The NBA provided a statement to ESPN that "the league has not received a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization through any of our processes, including our confidential workplace misconduct hotline or other correspondence."

But the league later issued a statement confirming it was launching an investigation into the allegations.

In 2014, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver — then two months into the job — after an NBA investigation confirmed he made racist remarks that were recorded during a conversation. The NBA Board of Governors, comprised of team owners or their representatives, then voted to force him to sell the team, which he did.

That action came after a growing number of NBA players publicly began calling for Sterling to step aside.

The National Basketball Players Association, which represents players across the league, issued a brief statement Thursday about the Sarver situation.

‘’We are continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.’’

Sarver issued the following statement on Thursday, saying he welcomes an NBA investigation into the allegations:

"I continue to be shocked by the false reporting from (ESPN reporter) Baxter Holmes. While there is so much that is inaccurate and misleading in this story that I hardly know where to begin, let me be clear: The n-word is not part of my vocabulary. I have never called anyone or any group of people the n-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing. I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in,'' the statement said.

"The way I lead my personal and professional life makes that clear. Instead of reporting the truth, Holmes’ story is based on misrepresentations from former Suns coach Earl Watson and other unnamed 'sources.' Mr. Watson created an unprofessional and toxic atmosphere in our organization,'' Sarver said. "He is clearly not a credible source. Despite hearing from witness after witness that disputed Mr. Watson’s stories, Mr. Holmes completely disregarded the truth here. Now we are in the position of trying to disprove things that did not happen.

"At this point, 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."

Mar 4, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver against the Golden State Warriors in the second half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sarver and other team officials had issued statements last month about the story before it was published, after reports surfaced that it was in the works.

On Thursday, Jason Rowley, president and CEO, issued a statement on behalf of Suns Legacy Partners, LLC saying the team had retained a defamation attorney.

"The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization vehemently reject the claims made in today’s ESPN article. Our two organizations have always worked hard to create an environment that is respectful and diverse; where racism, sexism and damaging behavior of any kind are not condoned,'' he said.

He added the story "contains false information and narratives perpetuated by a reporter who has struggled unsuccessfully to match the facts to a story he decided he wanted to tell a year ago."

The story said more than 70 former and current employees were interviewed. 

When Suns players were asked about the story before it was released, the consensus response was that they would just control what they could control, but Booker added, "I think something has to come out first before we comment on any situation, so. We’ll see." 

The Suns were playing the Houston Rockets on Thursday night at Footprint Center.

In the story, Sarver denies many of the most serious allegations.  

Some of the more alarming allegations in the ESPN report included his behavior regarding women. He passed around a picture of his wife in a bikini to employees and talked about her performing oral sex on him.

Sarver once asked a woman if he "owned" her to determine whether she worked for the Suns.

"The level of misogyny and racism is beyond the pale," one Suns co-owner said about Sarver, according to the report. "It's embarrassing as an owner." 

The story also quoted a former Suns basketball executive as saying, "There's literally nothing you could tell me about him from a misogynistic or race standpoint that would surprise me."

Jan 22, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver reacts against the Indiana Pacers in the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The ESPN report also said at least a half-dozen Suns staffers recounted instances of Sarver hearing a story from a Black player and then using the same language when retelling it, down to the usage of the N-word.

In another instance the ESPN story recounts, Sarver allegedly used the N-word when trying to explain to a staffer why he preferred hiring Lindsey Hunter over Dan Majerle as head coach in 2013, according to a high-level executive who heard the remark. 

"These [N-words] need a [N-word]," Sarver told the staffer of his largely Black team, according to the executive.

Suns Vice Chairman Jahm Najafi issued a statement Thursday morning calling the conduct alleged in the ESPN story ''unacceptable.''

"I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns. The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable. 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,'' Najafi said.

"I am personally committed to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism, and bias, which is unacceptable anywhere in our society. I have partnered with the NBA Foundation to underscore this commitment. The Phoenix Suns is a national treasure that belongs to all of us as fans and residents of our community,'' he added. "Team investors are simply temporary stewards of this treasure. It is our job as stewards to ensure everyone is treated respectfully and equally. Although today’s revelations fall under the jurisdiction of the League which decides and takes any action based on its finding, I offer my support to ensure there is full accountability."

Earlier this year Najafi, a minority owner of the team, pledged $10 million for the NBA Foundation to boost economic development in Black communities.

Sarver, through his legal team, said he never called "called anyone or any group of people the N-word," ESPN reported.

"I've 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. I don't use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in."

However, Sarver admitted he did use the N-word once years ago, ESPN reported.

"On one occasion a player used the N-word to describe the importance of having each others' back," Sarver said 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."

In responding to Watson's allegations, Sarver, in the article, said he never had that conversation with Watson, but with a Suns player who had received a technical foul for using the N-word during the game.

Sarver encouraged the player to appeal the technical because Green had used the word in the game. The technical foul was later rescinded by the league, ESPN reported.

"This is absolutely untrue," Sarver said in the article. "I remember the game and topic clearly. I of course never used the word myself. During this conversation, I said 'N-word' without saying the full word. The word itself never crossed my lips."

Have opinion about current state of the Suns?Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at or contact him at 480-787-1240.Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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